Film Reviews

Before The Devil Knows You're Dead Sidney Lumet

Rating - 9/10

Hank (Ethan Hawke) and Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) have a problem. They both need money. Fast. Each has their own reasons. Divorced and impoverished, Hank needs an influx of cash to both pay off a series of debts to his nagging ex-wife (Amy Ryan) and to enable his daughter to go on expensive field trips to New York’s theatre district.

Andy on the hand is a slick payroll manager at a Manhattan real-estate company. He knows the business well, perhaps too well. For years he’s embezzled funds from the company to feed his concealed, yet insatiable drug habit. Now he needs cash to start-up again. Possibly in Brazil; where he and his sexy wife (Marisa Tomei) fleetingly re-sparked their tired and ardorless marriage some years ago.

Knowing that his kid brother Hank is also desperately in need of cash, Andy recruits him to participate in a quick moneymaking scheme. Hank will rob a suburban jeweler on a quiet Saturday morning. At face value, Andy's plan appears to be flawless. Located in a non-descript mini-mall, the store appears ideal. It’s a “mom and pop” place: quaint and quiet. Furthermore, the two brothers once worked at the location during hard times. They know the joint inside and out. They even know who will be working. And to alleviate Hank’s guilt-ridden conscience, Andy promises him it’s an insured property and no guns will be used. It’s a cinch. Nobody gets harmed. And if Andy is correct, there is an estimated half a million dollars in cash and jewels located in the building. Perfect, right? Wrong.
Constructed out of tragic elements borne from Ancient Greek theatre, Sidney Lumet’s 2007 film Before The Devil Knows Your Dead is a masterful crime drama. Intricately scripted by Kelly Masterson, the film is a complexly plotted thriller about the events before and after the crooked filial pair take part in a botched robbery of a suburban jewelry store. Episodic in its construction, Lumet’s film navigates through murky emotional waters filled with Oedipal revenge, betrayal and an avaricious lust for money.
In contrast to typical crime genre fare, Lumet’s picture has little to do with the plotted schematics of the crime, but rather its brutal and disorientating aftermath. There are no post-larceny champagne swigging celebrations here, as Lumet dives into the darkest depths of the human soul; exploring the human condition for its discordant selfish aspirations and twisted logic. The family microcosm, Lumet probes is filled with fissures, petty rivalries and a basic inability to communicate emotions and feelings.
The subsequent results are explosive and ravaging; producing a dysfunctional family unit more akin to those found in hyperactive suburban melodramas than crime thrillers. Yet, through the film’s four outstanding central performances, the 83 year-old Lumet is able to construct an intimate atmosphere as angry and fresh, as the small juror room he fashioned in his first picture some five decades earlier, 1957’s 12 Angry Men. In stark contrast to 12 Angry Men, there is no ennobled, virtuous Fonda-like hero in Before The Devil Knows You're Dead. Instead there are a series of complexities and conflicting platitudes found in the film’s main characters; particularly in Ethan Hawke’s Hank: a man willing to participate in a robbery simply to fulfill the financial obligations of his adolescent daughter.
Fusing Dostoyevskyian, Biblical and Greek tragic thematic elements into a contemporary crime drama, Lumet creates a piece that is emotionally raw and spare. Little is hidden from the audience. Aside from the film’s riddle-like construction, there are scant hyperbolic creative flourishes residing in this work. But through its emphasis on emotionality and character-based tonality, Lumet’s film subverts and twists genre conventions. Ironically, the film’s rare moments of disappointment are located in its sparing adherence to genre customs: the inclusion of overt gunplay near the film’s climatic denouement; the eruptive moments of volcanic melodramatic emotionalism.
Nevertheless, it is the film’s noteworthy performances which make the project click dramatically, rather than appear gimmicky. Hawke’s sniveling coward is in perfect contrast to Hoffman’s emotionally unkempt ball of rage. Tomei is equally strong as Andy’s sexually dissatisfied wife, while Albert Finney reigns supreme as the brothers' bitter and distant father. Through the film’s episodic language, an array of sensations and sentiments are educed into increasingly devastating portions; each revealing the film’s general thematic emphasis on the inability to completely maintain control over one’s life.
The latter thematic idea is beautifully asserted  in the film through Hoffman’s simple, yet immensely effective musings to a high-class drug pusher about the struggle to make life’s sum components add up into a neat, manipulative whole. Perfectly synchronized and spoken by the film’s most corrupt character, the allegory neatly posits the overriding logic of the slowly-paced Before The Devil Knows You're Dead.
An unflinching, understated and unglamorous morality play, Before The Devil Knows You're Dead is a film with a deep emotional core. A rare crime drama focused more on the reactions produced by the criminal act than the act itself; Before The Devil Knows You're Dead is a sparkling portrait of moral decay and greed. Brittle and sparse, this is one of the best crime films of the decade and Lumet’s best work in years.