Criminal Acts

Melodrama has a bad reputation. I often hear the word used as if to signify that a writer, director or actor has done something wrong, that he or she has veered off of the course of respectable “drama” into the shameful land of the “melo.” A land where plot developments are unforgivably over the top, exaggeration reigns, and a character is little more than a vehicle for the expression of a single emotion, be it greed or lust or love. But melodrama, when done right, is undeniably satisfying. When a convoluted plot comes together so well that the result seems inevitable, when characters are fully developed but simply consumed by one overarching emotion or flaw, and when the execution of all of this is properly eloquent, a melodrama is a drama without a cage.

One of the best places for proper melodrama to unfold is in a crime film. When there is money involved, one only expects emotions to run high. When extreme violence is possible, it provides a great cinematic channel for this emotion. And if the goal of the story is to get away with a crime, rather than to capture a love, or to solve a mystery, or whatever, then it only seems right when things begin to go desperately wrong and to get, yes, melodramatic. Which brings me (finally) to the strikingly good crime melodrama currently playing at a theater near you, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. Even the title is melodramatic. (And awesome.)

before-the-devil.jpgIt would be wrong for me to tell you too much about the plot of the film. It’s not that there are huge twists that can’t be revealed. In fact, the initial outcome of the crime that brothers Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke) set out to commit is shown to us before we even see them plotting it. But if you know too much about the plot going into this movie, it may hurt your appreciation of the way it is structured, and the way information is revealed to us, and when. Details that seem unimportant are later crucial; the way something is phrased makes you believe one thing to be true when it fact it never was. The screenplay, by newcomer Kelly Masterson, is masterful. The performances are uniformly excellent, with Marisa Tomei and Albert Finney being other key members of the cast. Towering legend of Hollywood Sidney Lumet directed, and at the age of 83 he makes his 1975 crime-gone-wrong classic Dog Day Afternoon look like a day at the park.

This movie is no simple shoot-em-up, though many people do get shot. It is a movie about consequences, and remorse, and desperation. It is at times very hard to watch. Honestly, when I first walked out of the movie it took me a few minutes to decide that I liked it. But I am still thinking about it a few days later, and my admiration has only grown. You won’t feel good when you are done watching it. But you will feel, whether right away or a bit later, like you’ve just seen one of the best crime movies of the decade.


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Downton Gabby: podcasting about Downton Abbey from a funny, foul-mouthed, feminist perspective

Quick Lit: reading one short story a day in 2015

Grand Dames: collecting sundry achievements of admirable women

The MacGuffin: archive of my days as a film critic

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