So says the crooked jeweler at a pivotal moment in Sidney Lumet's thrilling and bleak Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. It could as easily have been said by Alfred or Lucius Fox in Christopher Nolan's all together different, yet equally thrilling The Dark Knight.
Yes, I know I'm about a month late for a Dark Knight review. I was looking for a hook, waiting for a way to frame the movie and the post. When I saw Before the Devil... last weekend, I knew I had my frame.
What makes The Dark Knight such a thrilling and engaging film is not so much Heath Ledger's excellent turn, nor the visceral physicality of the action set pieces (done, so thankfully, without much obvious CG). It's the seriousness of purpose and the ambition of scale. It's a modern crime and punishment opera, really, pushing the limits of conventional (and it is, ultimately, conventional) comic book movie adaptations, as A.O. Scott so astutely pointed out in a New York Times commentary a few weeks back.
It's top-notch entertainment bursting with ideas and allusions to how we live, and how we seek justice and fear chaos in the world today. It's probably the best film about handling the nihilism of terrorists since the events of September 2001. It does a lot of talking — not necessarily a bad thing — but often times tells more than it shows. Film is a visual medium after all, and The Dark Knight often makes its points through words, and not action. One of the most effective sequences in the film is nearly wordless: the decision by the two groups on the two boats about who lives and who dies. That said, I'm really glad that Nolan, and his brother who wrote the screenplay with him, got to say and do what they wanted. It makes, ultimately, for a superior cinematic experience.
One major quibble, however: as I mentioned, the film has such a gritty verisimilitude, even in its biggest set pieces, that the clearly CG face of the destroyed Harvey Dent seemed out of place. The design of the two faces in the film was so over the top, so clearly unrealistic (though, perhaps, effective in a "comic book" sense with its exaggeration of features) that it looked truly out of place in this otherwise rough-and-bruised world. And one other quibble: wouldn't it have been more interesting to have one boat blow up rather than everyone escaping nicely and avoiding a common nightmare among those of us who take mass transit?
A film that's just as effective at showing the annihilation of the social order, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead lacks even the dim hopefulness of Nolan's Batman film. Nihilistic about familial relations in a way that would make Ledger's Joker proud, it's a film that shows so much more than it talks or tells. It's a modern Greek tragedy, set in motion when one of society's basic tenets — something along the lines of "Honor thy father and mother" — is broken. It's the tale of a robbery gone awry by people of questionable moral character, and how one corrupt act spreads like a cancer to claim all of those who come in to contact with it.
There are excellent performances all around (though I will ask Marissa Tomei to please put her top on (it's the gay in me)), though Philip Semour Hoffman and Albert Finney stand out. The banality of the evil they foist upon themselves is devastating, and the small touches in their performances that speak volumes about the family they represent make the whole thing believable, no matter how dark and deep they go. And heaven help me, they go dark and deep.
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is easily one of 2007's best films, sadly overlooked by the Academy and audiences alike. It's not an easy journey, but a worthwhile one. It's a different take on threats to basic societal order, so much smaller in scale and scope than The Dark Knight, but an excellent companion piece and well worth your time.