Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
In its way, American Gangster pulls its audience up on to the screen along with its characters. This violent picture would never have been made unless the makers thought the audience wanted to be in it. Audiences have always been thrilled by vicarious lives of crime for a couple of hours--those swaggering thugs done by James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson!--but we had an escape hatch for our errant morality: the gangster always crashed at the end, and we could slide back into our orderly, lawnmowing lives. Now the gangster crashes much less often; and we no longer feel--anyway not so insistently--the need to see the bad guy punished.
Michael Corleone and Tony Soprano, murderers both, enlist our near-envy in their dark lives, and, imaginatively at least, we can forget the lawnmowing. Almost fifty years ago Robert Warshow published a celebrated essay called "The Gangster as Tragic Hero." It seems dated now. No tragedy inhabits the genre, no inverse heroism. The gangster is now just another entrepreneur, a rogue capitalist, blood-soaked perhaps, but, well, everybody has problems.
That view can certainly be deduced from American Gangster. In the very first scene a man named Frank Lucas and a pal are facing another man tied to a chair. They soak him with gasoline, then Frank tosses a lighter at him. While the man incinerates, Frank fires a couple of bullets into him to put him out of his agony. (Frank has heart.)
He is played by Denzel Washington. Here is a first-rank film star committing these acts to begin his performance, obviously not afraid of losing our sympathy. Then for the next two and a half hours we follow Frank as, beginning in 1968, he builds a drug business in Harlem. (The story is factual in the main: there is a Frank Lucas.) The racket becomes a multi-million-dollar empire. While he is lawbreaking and brutalizing, the soft-spoken Frank brings his mother and numerous brothers up from the South to a mansion in the suburbs. He takes his mother to church on Sundays. Then, out with his brothers in a restaurant one day, he sees an enemy in the street, goes out, shoots him in the head, then returns to lunch with his kin. The brothers seem impressed. (No one, police or otherwise, comes near him at lunch.) Frequently he mouths business principles to his associates as if he were heading General Foods. Also, he has a personal life: he falls in love, marries, buys his wife jewels and furs. He is quietly dressed and fearless. So the role is designed to make him both civil and fiercely criminal, utterly captivating to the viewers who want to be up there with him.
A contrapuntal role is interwoven. Richie Roberts, played by Russell Crowe, is a New Jersey detective who works on drug cases. He is in bad standing with his fellows because he found $1 million in cash that was intended for police payoffs and turned it over to the authorities. Nonetheless, clean in character, sloppy in dress, gum-chewing along, he keeps after drug dealers and finally zeroes in on Frank. (Richie, too, is given a "life": his wife is suing for custody of his small son whom he loves, and he studies law at night.) New York cops dislike Richie's occasional sorties into their terrain, and in one flare- up Richie, who wears a Star of David around his neck, is called a kike. (The story does not really make anything of the fact that he is a Jew.) But on he goes until, after a long traversal, he nabs Frank, and they have the face-to-face talk in jail toward which the film has been moving.
So this screenplay, by Steve Zaillian, offers us two different men for sympathy--cannily, because the filmmakers knew which one we would find more attractive. And there is a third major element, important in the atmosphere of the time: the Vietnam War. Radio reports cite the large percentage of U.S. soldiers who are on drugs out there, while Nixon mouths words of progress in the military and drug war. Frank, alert and clever, scents the breeze and makes his way to a South Asian country, where he sets a deal for large quantities of the purest possible heroin. The drug is shipped, with the help of a well-paid U.S. Army officer, to New Jersey on Army planes, sometimes in the company of coffins. (In a particularly raw moment, Richie and friends, armed with a warrant, break open some of the coffins looking for a shipment, which eventually they find.) This whole story about the government's war on drugs takes place against the Vietnam background of acknowledged drugging and government deception.
American Gangster is thus about more than one gangster. Brimful of depravity in persons and politics, in essence it is a report of acceptance, with Richie as the one constant objector. At the end we are told that the real Frank, Frank the incinerator, having served a relatively short prison sentence, is now living in Westchester.
Prominent in the cast, along with Washington and Crowe, is Armand Assante as a mafia don with whom Frank is involved. Assante is used to this sort of role and spins it off knowledgeably. Washington has played unsavory men before, but he intensifies matters here. He knows that earlier stars who played criminals relied on the audience's fascination with evil daring. It's no longer quite the same. Nowadays the attitude toward sufficiently outrageous criminals has altered. No iota of daring is needed. Obviously Washington relished that opening scene as a lurid backdrop against which to play a family man and a square business dealer, a contemporary mix. He brings it off almost sickeningly well.
Russell Crowe has a tougher job because not many viewers want to be Richie. Still, he does a bit better than we might expect. (Especially in Frank's trial near the close, in which this tyro lawyer handles the prosecution in a key case. ) Possibly this was because Crowe was working with Ridley Scott, the director with whom he made Gladiator. Scott, now seventy years old, is predictably dexterous. Yet as the film moves toward its end, it disappoints. It was apparently intended as a sort of epic, which doesn't quite arrive. American Gangster lacks the evolution in stature that even an epic about a monster needs. (See Richard III.) Scott and Zaillian have only supplied the ingredients: they are not fused into an evil monument.
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead may also have had comparable large-scale ambitions in the line of a Greek tragedy built on family violence, but the screenwriter, Kelly Masterson, overlooked something. Though he stuffed two hours with family killings, he omitted the deep racial-tribal motives that caused the troubles in, for instance, the Atreus clan. All the troubles in Masterson's picture derive from a robbery scheme--a thin and hardly credible one.
Andy, married, is a smooth and slick accountant in New York who cooks up a plot to get money by robbing his parents. Comfy though he seems, he has money needs, and he has always disliked his father. The parents run a jewelry shop in Westchester; Andy figures that the place would be easy to rob on a Saturday. Only an aged assistant will be there, and the insurance will cover his parents' loss. He persuades his younger brother, Hank, a much less self-assured fellow, to do the job, and of course as soon as the plan is set we are sure that it will go wrong.
Hank, nervous, knows a quasi-hood named Bobby and persuades him to come along and do the actual heist while Hank keeps the car ready. Bobby breaks into the shop, but this morning it is Hank's mother who is there. Because of mishaps, she is shot, and she then shoots Bobby. Soon we see Andy and Hank, accessories to the shooting of their mother, at her hospital bed with their father. On a doctor's advice, the father agrees to let life supports go: mother, too, goes.
Andy wanted cash for his lifestyle, which includes visits to a male hooker and lots of drugs, and has already stolen money from his firm. Now he is desperate. Hank is being blackmailed: the brother-in-law of the murdered Bobby threatens to expose Hank's part in the robbery. (Apparently Masterson shoved in Bobby as the actual killer so that Hank wouldn't have to murder his own mother. Euripides wasn't that timid: Orestes does the job himself.) Even more cobbled complications follow.
The flimsy base of the story and its tenuous ramifications are (partially) bearable because of the cast. Philip Seymour Hoffman, now pot-bellied, makes Andy smugly commanding--so much so that it is hard to believe this smart man would cook up such a faulty robbery scheme. Ethan Hawke, as Hank, has a difficult time. He has to be high-strung and jittery from beginning to end, but Hawke manages it. Albert Finney plays their father with a conviction that almost convinces us. Lovely Rosemary Harris, a theater treasure of the past, plays the small role of mom, and has to crawl across the floor of her shop, bleeding, until she reaches the pistol and shoots the robber. What a part for Rosemary Harris.
In charge was Sidney Lumet, now eighty-three, who is one of the best of American directors. But the man who made Dog Day Afternoon and Murder on the Orient Express and The Verdict is not visible here. His new picture is of course competently done, but it has none of the cinematic ingenuity of (for instance) The Verdict. His best contribution here is in his work with his actors. They respond to the Lumet touch.
The title comes from an old Irish line: "May you be in heaven for thirty minutes before the devil knows you're dead." It has no relevance to the film.
Stanley Kauffmann is The New Republic's film critic.
By Stanley Kauffmann