Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007) / Drama-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for strong sexuality, nudity, violence, drug use and language
Running time: 92 min.
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, Marisa Tomei, Rosemary Harris, Brian F. O'Byrne, Aleksa Palladino, Michael Shannon, Amy Ryan, Blaine Horton
Director: Sidney Lumet
Screenplay: Kelly Masterson
Review published April 24, 2008
Director Sidney Lumet (Find Me Guilty, Night Falls on Manhattan) is at his best when in the crime drama category, a genre to which Before the Devil Knows You're Dead solidly qualifies. Lumet is a craftsman, and certainly delivers when necessary to make this a worthwhile experience, but this story will be a bitter pill for some audiences to have to swallow, with unlikeable characters and situations that grow increasingly bleak. It's the proverbial Greek tragedy structure, with characters fated to tragedy, not only for themselves, but for their families, as forces beyond their control seem to be pull away salvation each time it is right within their grasp.
Philip Seymour Hoffman (MI3, Capote) and Ethan Hawke (The Hottest State, Lord of War) star as brothers Andy and Hank Hanson, both needing cash to keep up lifestyles that neither can afford, and neither can afford to lose. Andy brings in a desperate Hank to find a way to get rich in a hurry with a heist scheme to knock off their own parents suburban jewelry store. However, things don't go according to plan and people get hurt, causing a downward spiral for both men, their marriages and their family, continuing to try to find a way out that will be beneficial to everyone without getting caught.
The nonlinear thriller plot is already past the point of being overused, so freshness points aren't likely to be granted in employing trite gimmickry in is a straightforward plot that works better for its characterizations and exploration on familial themes. Particularly jarring are the transitions between timelines, as the click-clack noises as the shots flip back and forth take us out of the moment more often than necessary. Those are about the only sounds that are hard on the ears though, as the score by Carter Burwell (No Country for Old Men, Kinsey), who has been in a terrific creative groove of late, delivers a fine sense of mood and melancholy, suited well for the somber and angst-ridden story this is.
The acting is solid across the board, with actors who bare all, both physically and emotionally (with a fair share of graphic sex and nude scenes), although each one of the characters is repressed to a fault. Particularly strong is Hoffman, whose anguish is evident throughout, and though the marriage to Marisa Tomei's (Wild Hogs, Alfie) character is ostensibly manufactured for the movies, the dysfunctional nature of it suggests that both had high hopes that never panned out, so the mismatch works in its favor.
There is a sterile nature to what we see, very clean with saturated lighting that gives Lumet's picture a special look. This isn't a dirty, gritty crime film as he's made in the past. It's almost a white collar-type crime by the brothers with a blue collar component that they aren't privy to seeing. All they are required to do is to plan and to wait, but as much as they want to keep their hands clean, they find that they are going to have to get in the mud to save themselves.
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is effective and riveting, such that many will concede is a good film, though a lesser number will probably claim to personally like. It also ends in a flat fashion, though Lumet tries to tie the wash-out with the suggestion of Heaven/Hell ambiguity, and yet it doesn't quite cap the tale with the effect appropriate. Still, it's a worthwhile film for those who don't mind a bleak story and a lack of pat happy endings for all involved. This is a film about people whose lives are a shambles, whose morals are vacating, and whose potential to find happiness has past them by long ago.
©2008 Vince Leo