Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

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

Dear god, what a dismal tale. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is an exercise in taking an instance of 'it can't get any worse, can it?' and making it much, much worse in the very next scene. I certainly don't mean in the quality of the film, which is superb, but in the depths of misfortune one family can sink to. This is tragedy of such magnitude that The Bard himself would be proud, compounded by the fact that all the misfortune is due to greed and ineptitude. Sidney Lumet's swan song deserves a place in the pantheon of 'bleakest films ever,' which makes this familial train wreck all the more morbidly fascinating.

Not a single role here is wasted, from Phillip Seymour Hoffman's embezzling, doped-up yuppie to Michael Shannon's brief role as a crassly suave wise guy. Personally, I'm not sure I've ever been more impressed with Ethan Hawke and his turn as Hoffman's simpering, eager-to-please younger brother. As an eldest brother myself, it was painful to watch Hoffman's machinations of Hawke's desperate and naive Hank. Albert Finney's lesser role as their father and Marissa Tomei as Andy's wife and Hank's lover are also fantastic; especially Finney, who steals scenes with such ease it's unnatural.

I'm a sucker for non-linear narratives, and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead handles them amazingly well; ratcheting up the tension of the current timeline and, just as it peaks, swinging back to an earlier point in the chronology to provide another point of view on the events. Lumet and screenwriter Kelly Masterson do a great job converging the tales at different points in the overall timeline so the viewer is never kept too long from those moments of climax. Another bit of praise to Masterson for writing dialogue that wouldn't feel out of place in a stage play, but making it feel natural occurring in the cinematic approach and settings Lumet uses.

Yes, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead weighs heavy on the soul, and is increasingly difficult to sit through as the Hanson family self-destructs. And yes, it's not a film that I'd rewatch on a whim due to the lack of any and all optimism, humor, or even momentary breaks in the bleakness. But for the performances, narrative twists and turns, and emotional toll it takes, I'd have to say that being lauded by many critics as one of the best films of 2007 is something I'd no longer question.

Expires Apr. 16 on Netflix.

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