Review: Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
Plot: Two brothers (Philip Seymour Hoffman & Ethan Hawke) is need of money hire an underworld associate to rob their parents’ jewelry store. The job goes awry, and the gunman not only gets himself killed, but also mortally wounds their mother (Rosemary Harris). Swearing vengeance, their father (Albert Finney) swears he will track down and kill whoever’s responsible for the heist- not knowing the men he’s hunting are his own sons.
Review: BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD is a remarkable return to form for director Sidney Lumet. Now 83, until recently Lumet appeared to be in the twilight of his career. His last film, FIND ME GUILTY, was an above average Vin Diesel vehicle that- while not a commercial success, was fairly well received by critics. Still, no one would have believed that a year later he’d come out with a film that is not only his best film since 1981’s PRINCE OF THE CITY, but also stands shoulder to shoulder with some of his best work (12 ANGRY MEN, THE ANDERSON TAPES, SERPICO, NETWORK, etc..).
Given the material, it would have been extremely easy for the film to veer off into melodrama, but Lumet never lets this happen. The film is tightly constructed, and scenes are short and to the point. Lumet also creates a great sense of forebodding which hangs over the film, and uses his New York locations very well, contrasting the chaos of the city with the comparative tranquility of the surrounding suburbs.
While it boasts a strong script by first time scribe Kelly Masterson, the thing that really makes this film great are the terrific performances that Lumet gets out of his cast. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is particularly good as Andy, the older, morally bankrupt sibling who masterminds the robbery. While in other hands, the smarmy Andy would have been a straight ahead villain, Hoffman manages to imbue the character with a bit of sympathy. From the first scene in the film- in which Andy is having wild sex with his trophy wife Gina (Marisa Tomei- who’s never been sexier), while looking at himself in the mirror, it's obvious that this guy is an ego- maniac, which is even more evident by the way he pushes his younger, weaker brother Hank into the robbery. He needs the money from the robbery due to the fact that he's trying to put together enough cash to leave the country, as under his yuppie exterior, he's a junkie and an embezzler. Once the crime goes awry, Andy begins to see his deception filled world crumbling around him, and Hoffman plays his ever increasing sense of desperation beautifully.
As Hank, Hawke has the less showy role, but he does a great job nonetheless, playing Hank as a perfectly decent guy who only wants to score some quick cash so he can be a better provider for his daughter and ex-wife- who think he's a deadbeat. As their father Charles, Albert Finney (who famously played Hercule Poirot for Lumet in 1974's MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS) has his best role in years. His character, like the others, is extremely complicated. On the one hand, he appears to be an extremely loving family man, and remains blissfully unaware that his sons are anything less than perfect until it's far too late. On the other, Hoffman's character seems to loathe him, and it's hinted during the scenes with Hoffman, that his character was not exactly father of the year material. These scenes, pitting the two hard hitting actors mano a mano are among the best in the film. Hoffman and Finney play well off each other, and look convincing as father and son.
When Lumet got his lifetime achievement award at the 2005 Oscars, most assumed that Lumet's best years were behind him, and that he'd likely make a few more so-so films, and then fade away. Instead he went out and made a masterpiece, that in no way is an old man's film- and proves that regardless of age, Lumet is still one of the best directors in the business.