Sidney Lumet's BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD ****
Honestly, the less I say about Sidney Lumet’s powerful, absorbing new thriller BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD the better. Lumet, master New York filmmaker from the 70’s and 80’s, has made his best movie in a long time (last year’s FIND ME GUILTY was good but a far cry from the golden years) with BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD, due in no small part to Kelly Masterson’s brilliant debut screenplay. A Shakespearean morality tale with a cold, cold heart, the film features a typically stunning lead performance from Philip Seymour Hoffman and excellent work from the terrific ensemble cast (Ethan Hawke, Marisa Tomei, Albert Finney, Rosemary Harris). Dark, nasty, and tragic, the film has a twisted-time scenario that we’ve seen before in other crime thrillers. But Masterson’s perfectly pitched plotting and incisive dialogue combined with Lumet’s steady directorial hand allows us to somehow enjoy (!) the mean-spirited events that BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD places in front of its audience.
Hoffman is Andy, an angry, troubled businessman with a small heroin addiction. He’s married to Gina (the sexy Tomei, who gets hotter as she gets older) but their relationship is strained for a variety of reasons. What Andy doesn’t know is that Gina is sleeping with his brother Hank (a stressed, finicky Ethan Hawke), who himself has a nasty ex-wife (Amy Ryan, in another scene stealing supporting performance after her amazing work in GONE BABY GONE) who wants nothing more than the child support checks. Andy and Hank are losers, to the extreme, but losers who think they can actually commit the perfect crime. Andy devises a plan to knock off a small jewelry store in the middle of a Westchester County shopping mall. The kicker: their parents own the shop. Andy tells Hank that it’s the perfect crime; they’ll get the cash and jewels, and their parents will get the insurance money. If only crime was that simple. When the robbery goes haywire, and someone (not telling) is unexpectedly shot, BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD takes one dark turn after another, leading us to its grim final moments.
Coming off like a cousin of Joel and Ethan Coen’s masterpiece FARGO, Masterson weaves together a nasty portrait of regular people bungling crime; these people are so inept that you will be screaming at them in your head to stop making such poor decisions. Small details are set up towards the beginning of the film, all of which come full circle by the end. Lumet, in films such as SERPICO, NETWORK, PRINCE OF THE CITY, and DOG DAY AFTERNOON, has always been after character in his films, and here, he has some really evil people to explore. The rage and intensity that Hoffman brings to the role of Andy is a force to be reckoned with; nobody can yell like Hoffman and you taste his breath and spit and sweat in every explosive frame that he occupies. Hawke, in a difficult role, is probably the best he’s ever been; his weaker brother character is so finely etched and so manically portrayed that in a way, you feel bad for the shlump. Well…almost feel bad. And Finney, who nails every single scene he appears in, reminds us how effective an actor he can be with just a small exchange of dialogue or a nod of his head.
BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD is one of those thrillers that works best when you know as little as possible. It constantly surprises the audience with its low-key demeanor and the simple set-up; as the movie rolls along, and as the pieces start to come together, it’s then that you realize how insanely cruel the film really is. And by the time the pitch-black ending arrives, you’ll have sweaty palms and a new respect for family values. Lumet and Masterson aren’t afraid to depict reprehensible characters, and like FARGO, there is a distinct pleasure in watching these corrupt people go about their foul deeds. Never show-offy or in your face (Lumet is 83 years old), BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD is an old-school crime thriller that quietly sneaks up on you and grabs you by the throat. It’s one of the best movies of the year.