I’ve been looking for tragedy or tragic elements in film. Tragedy is supposed to be a theatrical form, but I don’t think it is anymore. There seems to be little or nothing about that fits the bill, although I haven’t seen Edward Albee’s The Goat, or , Who is Sylvia? I owe it a debt though, because one of my phd examiners was considering failing me on the basis that tragedy is a dead form – until he remembered that Albee had a play and it was at least etymologically thereabouts (‘tragedy’ literally meaning ‘goat song’).
The evidence though is that my attempt at tragedy at least was a bit on the dead side, as the play has never been produced. It came close a couple of times, but seemed fated to stay in two unbreathing dimensions. So now I look for films because that is where my course is set. I’ve just about completed a draft of the film of the play, but it might need a more radical rethink.
There are a few reasons why I think tragedy is more likely to be found in film now rather than theatre. First of all, I believe that tragedy aligns itself to the dominant narrative form. In the time of the Greeks and Shakespeare, this was clearly theatre. My supervisor, Ann McCulloch centred her phd thesis on the Tragic as seen in the modernist novel. Now, I think, film. Secondly, theatre has rejected narrative. Thirdly, film has tapped into the Aristotelian emphasis on the structural elements of tragedy.
Sydney Lumet’s final film, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead certainly has elements of tragedy. Kelly Masterson’s script is a powerful downward spiral for the protagonists – two brothers who decide to turn over their parent’s jewelery shop as a solution to their financial problems. The set-up is perhaps not so promising, and certainly some reviews of the film focused on the general unlikeability of the characters, but somehow we burrow into the dilemmas and excruciating consequences of the characters’ actions. The brothers also beautifully represent both ends of the shortcomings of the capitalist dream – the elder, Andy (brilliantly played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a high-living broker who is in fact ripping off the company to fund his habit, while his younger brother, Hank (ditto Ethan Hawke) is on minimum wage and trying to support his ex and daughter who are moving up in the world.
Needless to say, the robbery does not go well. Turns out their mother was working that day. Also Hank, who is supposed to do the dirty work himself, loses his nerve and hires a professional thug to help out. Andy knows nothing of this, but perhaps he should know his brother well enough to know how it will turn out. It’s not giving too much away to say that Hank is the only one to emerge from the stick-up alive.
The most excruciating scenes are probably those with their grief stricken father (Albert Finney) who is driven to find out what really happened that day and of course has no idea about his sons’ guilt. I think we feel genuine pity and fear for these brothers, particularly perhaps for Hank. Andy is perhaps a little too medicated to achieve full recognition. Hank is weak, but is also fully aware of the horror of his situation. There are many moments where we squirm at the enormity of his action, but for me his low point comes when the late professional thugs widow (and scary brother) come looking for answers (and compensation). At this point in the story our breath shortens and we feel the spiral of panic that Hank feels..
There’s more to follow on tragedy…