April 2008

Arts & Letters

Horrible, horrible people

By Luke Davies

Tamara Jenkins’ ‘The Savages’ & Sidney Lumet’s ‘Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead’

A tradition in recent indie film is the ironic and stylised setpiece, wherein a suburban landscape is rendered with satirical hyper-clarity, a lurid colour saturation à la David LaChapelle's over-lighting. An early prototype is the surreal white-picket-fence opening shot of David Lynch's 1986 film Blue Velvet, with its slow-motion waving and smiling firemen, its flowerbeds and deep-green lawns. It is there, too, in Alain Berliner's sweet Ma vie en Rose (1997), with its peachy-perfect Parisian suburbs and choreographed cars all leaving their garages in Ziegfeld-Follies-style synchronisation. There were nods to it more recently in Little Miss Sunshine (2006). And it is rendered most beautifully toward the end of Alison Maclean's excellent Jesus' Son (1999), as Billy Crudup wanders, bewildered and blessed, into a new life in the crisp sunshine of neat suburban Phoenix, Arizona.

In Tamara Jenkins' new film, The Savages (released nationally on 18 April), we are in Arizona yet again; but we open in a place of endings, whereas in Jesus' Son we closed in a place of beginnings. Jenkins depicts the retirement tracts of Sun City, where old folks come to play cribbage and die, as a cactus-and-palm version of the Blue Velvet opening. In another Ziegfeld-like moment, senior citizenettes, dressed creepily as cheer-girls, dance slow-motion amid the shrubbery. Electric golf carts motor along the streets. The world is impossibly clean and blindingly light. But oh, what darkness is to come. Jenkins' last film, released ten years ago, was the engaging Slums of Beverly Hills, which was pleasantly light, with dark edges. Here, she has flipped that: The Savages, a comedy (the term is used advisedly) with bite, is a sometimes uncomfortably sombre film, albeit one with an unflinchingly hilarious streak.

Philip Bosco plays Lenny Savage, who is not doing so well out in Sun City. His girlfriend dies of old age. He's losing his social skills. The onset of what's vaguely identified as dementia or Parkinson's leaves him befuddled. He seems not so much a Grumpy Old Man as an angrily bewildered, heavily medicated child.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is his dishevelled son, Jon, an overly brainy, underachieving theatre-studies lecturer at a university in Buffalo, in upstate New York. He's working on a paper, possibly a book, entitled ‘No Laughing Matter: Dark Comedy in the Plays of Bertolt Brecht'. He's 42 years old, shut down and chronically humourless. His girlfriend is moving back to Poland, and he's more distraught than he lets on.

Laura Linney is Jon's sister, Wendy, an overly brainy, underachieving office temp in New York City who spends her spare time filling in applications for arts grants (nothing ambitious, just Guggenheim Fellowships and the like) for the "subversive" plays she intends to write. She's 39 and in the middle of a prolonged, lacklustre affair with a married neighbour (Peter Friedman, as Larry) who lives in the same apartment block. She's lost and adrift; in the middle of what for the audience is excruciatingly uncomfortable lovemaking, she reaches across and tenderly touches Larry's patient and observant old Labrador on the nose. We seem to know everything about her from this awful moment.

The two frozen, disconnected siblings are so long estranged from their father that these days they hardly know where he lives. When Lenny winds up hog-tied in a hospital due to his bad behaviour, and evicted from his house after his girlfriend's death, Wendy says to her brother, "We're going to have to go out there and find him." "We are not going to have to go out there and find him," replies Jon. "This is not a Sam Shepard play."

The Savages is filled with this kind of acerbic dialogue, and it is often a delightful antidote to the confronting subject matter. Jon seems very real in this film, rather than the quirky or sociopathic characters that so often seem Hoffman's lot as an actor, such as in Happiness (1998). Laura Linney is, as always, terrific; she does deep pain as readily as comic lightness, and director Jenkins is unafraid to intertwine the two, as when we watch Wendy bravely attempt, in the narrow gap between two beds in a hotel room, to keep up with an aerobics routine on TV.

Early on, when Jon suggests that Wendy stay in Arizona with their father while he goes back east to scout for a nursing home near Buffalo, she says, aghast, "By myself?" He shoots back, "Wendy, this is not the time to regress." The bickering tone of their relationship is set. To Lenny, these two are like aliens. He thinks Jon can get him out of the hospital because he is a doctor. Wendy explains that Jon is not that kind of doctor; he's a doctor of philosophy. "He teaches theatre," she says. "Like Broadway?" asks Lenny, perplexed. "No ... like ... theatre of social unrest."

There's a stillness to the film which is absolutely appropriate in creating vividly, for us, Jon and Wendy's sense of being trapped in a slow-moving, ominous nightmare. They install Lenny in the Valley View nursing home. The staff seems nice, but the place is grim. And Buffalo, so drab and snow-drenched, as rendered by Mott Hupfel's cinematography, is surely the equivalent of one of Ken Loach's depressed northern-English towns. Like Loach, Tamara Jenkins has an eye for illuminating the small, human moment.

The Savages does falter a few times: there are scrappy patches, and points where it feels overly sincere. But nothing is over-dramatised, which is a relief in this era of perpetual cinematic signposting.

At times there is too much signposting in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (currently in limited release). Like The Savages, Sidney Lumet's latest film has a bleakness to it, but Lumet's take is punchy, raw, amoral, as opposed to that of Jenkins, which is more measured, whimsical, bittersweet. There is no stylised ironic opening for Lumet, for example: we are plunged into a loveless, grunting sex scene between Philip Seymour Hoffman, the indie perennial, and Marisa Tomei as his wife, Gina.

Lumet's career is extraordinary by any definition. He has made around 50 films since his first, 12 Angry Men (with Henry Fonda), in 1957. He's not a great ‘signature' director, but he has made some great works: 12 Angry Men; a tight and underrated nuclear-diplomacy thriller, Fail Safe (1964); a grim and powerful Sean Connery film, The Hill (1965); the very good cop thriller Serpico (1973, with Al Pacino); his masterpiece, the sublime Dog Day Afternoon (1975, also with Pacino); and Network (1976, with Peter Finch and Faye Dunaway), which won four Oscars. Lumet is a workhorse, though, and his misfire rate is high. Straight after Network he made the uneven Equus and the awful The Wiz, starring a young Michael Jackson. Before the Devil is neither a misfire nor one of the Lumet specials. It is Lumet getting the job done.

Hoffman is Andy Hanson, a somewhat gone-to-seed, somewhat greasy payroll accountant in a New York firm. His marriage to Gina is an unhappy one. He seems to have a cocaine problem, and visits the upmarket apartment of a skinny young dealer who gets around in a silk robe and injects his clients with heroin. Andy's your average accountant, in other words. Ethan Hawke is Andy's younger brother, Hank, who works unenthusiastically in the same firm, is rancorously divorced from his wife, and is three months behind in child-support payments for his daughter. Big brother comes to him with a simple proposition. "You need money. So do I. Let's solve it."

What follows is a classic no-surprises drama, even though it's filled with twists, turns and convolutions. We slam, early, into a wonderfully inept jewellery-store heist, with Brian F O'Byrne as Hank's thuggish accomplice, Bobby. It is a scene of cascading catastrophe in the manner of Fargo, but without the hilarity, or the sense of the gods rolling their dice, that the Coen brothers so often inject into their films. Still, we realise that disaster will be inevitable. From there the film maintains a frenetic pace. Lumet tries out a few tricksy TV moments - rapid edits and flash zooms with a kind of snare-drum crack - but they come across as a bit CSI: Miami in an otherwise fairly conventionally styled film. That said, the story is told in interesting loops: we keep coming back to scenes and seeing them from different angles, and they expand and continue from points where they had previously stopped.

If he doesn't have a signature style, like a Kubrick or a Malick, Lumet is nonetheless at his best when his characters talk. The forgotten but excellent Prince of the City (1981, with Treat Williams), nearly three dense hours of police corruption and moral quandary and turncoat betrayal, is wall-to-wall talk, and Lumet captures it with relish. In Serpico, talk is a fortress: Al Pacino's idealistic undercover cop, Frank Serpico, is besieged, his life threatened by those he will not kowtow to, and in his courtroom scenes it is his fierce, battle-weary eloquence that will vindicate his character and leave him alive, if scarred. In Before the Devil, talk is what males use in their power struggles, and the domineering Hoffman continually spews bile at Hawke, the brother he so callously manipulates.

But at times there is too much talk, and there are a few extraordinarily inept lapses. In one mini-monologue, Hoffman says, "My life, it doesn't add up. Nothing connects to anything else. I'm not the sum of my parts." Just in case you didn't get the point of all that, he adds, with nary a pause for effect: "All of my parts don't add up to one me, I guess." Not a single word of the speech is necessary, since we get it all from the film's action - and from its acting, which is generally strong and controlled. This is a script problem, but a director should nevertheless attend to hedge-trimming.

More energy might have been expended in finding a way of holding things together dramatically; because, in fact, it is parts of the film that don't connect. Terrific, taut moments come out of the blue, such as Hoffman's rage-filled meltdown about a too-late apology by his father, Charles (Albert Finney), while Marisa Tomei sits, uncomfortable and wide-eyed, in the passenger seat beside him. But what precedes these good scenes doesn't always lead logically to them. There are broad brushstrokes explaining the characters' dysfunction, but you keep asking: How do they all really fit into each other's lives? Where the hell do they come from?

Both this film and The Savages, for example, suggest a background of abusive and neglectful fathers, but only The Savages - even though it makes far less attempt to explain its characters' emotional back stories than does Before the Devil - gives us a sense of a very real history between its protagonists. One of the problems with Lumet's film is that I can imagine Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke (and for that matter Albert Finney) talking to one another off the set, but I can't for the life of me imagine how Andy and Hank and Charles Hanson talked, let alone fought, 20 years ago. This is more than a minor flaw in a film that aspires to tell an enjoyably gritty, noirish crime tale and imbue it with substance.

Before the Devil also suffers from clunky exposition. Quite late in proceedings, when things are really out of control, Ethan Hawke takes a pill to calm himself. He ponders the pill bottle. Then he tips all the pills into his hand. Oh, I get it: he's contemplating suicide. Then he tips the pills back into the bottle. Ah, so he's changed his mind. This is signposting of the worst kind, and seems unworthy of a great like Lumet. It's unfortunate, too, that as a viewer you become conscious of the illogicalities: what exactly was Hawke's desperate need to participate in the heist? His wife was nagging him about child support and he couldn't pay for his daughter's class trip to see The Lion King on Broadway. Armed robbery seems a tad extreme, given the circumstances: has he not heard of taking a second job? Elsewhere there's a fake build-up of tension when he needs to claim from the rental office an item he had left in a hire car that might turn out to be incriminating, but the manager who had called him is out for the afternoon. Doesn't the place have a lost-property drawer? Three-quarters of the film tumbles forward with a satisfying momentum, and then there are times when it seems Lumet is operating on a near-enough-is-good-enough principle.

The bulk of Lumet's work is an investigation of morality: that of society as a whole and of the individuals who constitute and haunt it. Before the Devil is no great exception - its characters restlessly haunt their own empty lives - but it makes for a loveless film. Some have said that it marks for Lumet a return to his glory days of the '70s. It is not exactly that. Lumet remains, as ever, as interested in the integrity of the individual conscience as in the lack of it, but what made Serpico compelling was that the two were held in such conflicted balance. In Before the Devil, the moral landscape is so corroded as to be all-pervasive. The result is a film that, for all its energy, leaves you distracted and wan.

The Savages, too, is an essay on morality: it dramatises in miniature our collective fear of death, and the moral questions it challenges us with are about how we deal or don't deal with shuffling our elders off this mortal coil. "We are horrible, horrible, horrible people," says Wendy, when she and Jon first leave their father at Valley View. "We are horrible." But The Savages is lighter on its feet, and kinder, and you feel that Tamara Jenkins cares deeply about these people. In Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, you feel that Sidney Lumet is moving characters around in a clever and complex, but ultimately bitter, game of chess.

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

Cover: April 2008
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