Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead ★★★½

While everyone is talking about the release of the Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men as being a huge 'return to form' for them, another director has released a brilliant film which calls back thirty years to his masterpieces of the '70s. Sidney Lumet is a director known for simply placing the camera in a courtroom or in front of a bank, wherever he pleases, stepping back and letting his actors explode. He's a man who's led a bounty of performers to Oscar fame, but has never put a solid stamp on his films. You don't know when you're watching a Lumet film. When you think of Dog Day Afternoon, your mind immediately goes to Al Pacino shouting 'Attica!' to the crowds gathered around his botched bank heist. When you think of Network, you recall the brutal social commentary in Paddy Chayefsky's flawless script or the Oscar-winning performances from Faye Dunaway and Peter Finch. You never imagine Lumet behind the camera choreographing every scene, because he just lets his actors do the talking. While that is definitely something to be admired, it never really leaves a permanent stamp on his work or embeds it with a particular style. In Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, the now 83-year old Lumet crafts a very unique style mainly through the exceptional editing and still manages to let his actors deliver some of the finest performances of the year.

Kelly Masterson's screenplay flows back and forth through a family full of insanely flawed individuals. We see a certain scene through the eyes of one character and then later we go back and see it through the eyes of someone else, and this opens us up to new knowledge of the character's and more layers to the story. Time after time, we revisit scenarios that we only thought we knew. On paper, this tactic seems like it would become rather tiresome and dull but it's the exact opposite. It becomes more and more engaging and when you witness a scene your mind begins to race thinking of what's happening on the other end of that phone call or why someone had to leave that room. It's a tactic that I can't recall seeing before, and it's surprising that no one had thought to use it sooner since it's purely brilliant.

To give away details of this multi-layered, powerful story would be a crime to those yet to see it, but it's safe to say that every character in this story goes through their fair share of turmoil, regret and unimaginably painful decisions. The core of the plot comes from brothers Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke). Both are desperately in need of a large sum of money in a relatively short amount of time; Hank is extremely far behind on his child support and his ex-wife does nothing but break him down and Andy has made some poor business decisions that have put him in extreme danger when people decide to look through his books and he just wants to escape to Rio with his beautiful wife Gina (Marisa Tomei). Andy is the more intellectual of the two and devises a scheme to rob a small jewelry store (a 'mom and pop' situation, as he smugly coins it). Once Hank agrees to go along with the plan, it is revealed that the 'mom and pop' store is actually run by their own parents (Albert Finney and Rosemary Harris). From a criminal's eye it makes the most sense, and Andy sees this. They know the layout, the alarms and the quickest way to get the most amount of cash in the shortest amount of time. With Hank being the morally decent of the two, there is the predictable argument between the two of them but that is quickly put aside and the plan is set in motion. Within the first ten minutes of the film we see this plan gone horribly wrong, and we embark on a journey to find the character's motivation up to that scene and the gradual downfall of their lives afterward.

As I previously stated, Lumet's personal touch on the film still leaves way for brilliant performances out of the entire ensemble. I have no hesitation in calling it the best acted film of the entire year by a large margin. Philip Seymour Hoffman takes on the most complex role as the villainous, unforgivable Andy and he delivers one of the best and bravest performances of his career. As the film opens, we see Andy and Gina in an exceptionally accurate portrayal of 'doggie-style' and your mind can't help but wonder what this short, chubby man did to get the beautiful goddess of Marisa Tomei into his bed. Soon enough we see that this is the least complex aspect of his life. He's a drug-addicted, money throwing businessman who is merely trying to live up to the expectations of his high-maintenance wife and this only drives him further and further down the hole to the point of concocting this doomed-from-the-beginning heist. After everything goes terribly wrong, Philip creates the quietest, most memorable and simply unnerving trashing-the-room tantrum I've ever seen. Hawke delivers what is easily the best performance of his career; his demise into a fearful, whimpering wreck is almost unbearable to watch. Albert Finney certainly makes the most of his brief screen time and provides a completely shocking finale and Marisa Tomei is Oscar-worthy; she's absolutely flawless as the trophy wife who is much more than she seems.

While taking us a on a journey from dreary bars to the minimalist jewelry store all the way up to a high-class heroin dealer's penthouse Lumet never gives us a moment to catch our breath and we are left sucking it all in as he hits us in the face with the most stunning situations that the brothers get themselves into on their fall to the bottom. He constantly gives us a sense of realism and this falls mainly through the characters. These men aren't high-class criminals who live their life on robbing banks and that's what makes the story so much more unnerving; the fact that these brothers could be us in a matter of days given the desperate circumstances. The unique editing of the film can be a bit off-putting at first but it really is one of the most original techniques I've seen in quite a while and keeps you on the edge of your feet. With a highly engaging, deeply layered plot and an entire ensemble of Oscar-worthy performers, Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is definitely a welcome return to form and a worthy swan song to a superb director.

Mitchell liked this review