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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 37.04%
Average: 5.56%
Pretty Bad: 9.26%
Total Crap: 0%

5 reviews, 24 user ratings

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Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
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by Erik Childress

"Impending Death Flashing Right Before Our Eyes"
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2007 TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: At the age of 83, Sidney Lumet has compiled a resume with so many definitives on the crimes-and-morals drama that it’s a wonder they aren’t required viewing in law schools and police academys across the country. Going back to 12 Angry Men in 1957 and then a ‘70s/’80s string of Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Prince of the City and The Verdict, Lumet became so synonymous with the genre that now, decades later as filmmakers are creating throwback works to the gritty style of the maverick period (Zodiac, American Gangster), they are being referred to as “Sidney Lumet films.” It seems as if Lumet’s time had already passed, having released only a pair of theatrical features in the last ten years, but with his latest you get all the weight of dishonorable people and the choices they make and the added pounds of a more modern style that probably keeps a very good film from ranking with his classics.

Lumet shoots us right into two indelible sequences that grab our attention from the get-go. The first being a bare-all sex scene involving Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Andy and his wife, Gina (Marisa Tomei) and then “The Day of the Robbery” where a suburban jewelry store turns into a cross of awkward heroics and amateur criminality with both sides coming out on the losing end. The getaway driver is a very frantic Hank (Ethan Hawke) and what we will soon discover is that he is Andy’s brother and the not-so-silent partner in the plan. The elder sibling has been taking a cue from another Hoffman character (from Owning Mahowny) and embezzling funds from the real estate company he’s tired of working for. Hank owes numerous child-support payments to his ex-wife (Amy Ryan) who is anything but understanding.

The job should be an easy in-and-out with an early weekend timeframe and a single employee on duty. But Hank doesn’t quite have the stones to pull it off himself and thus gets a friend of his, Bobby (Brian F. O'Byrne), who has committed a few petty larcenies in his day. A mom-and-pop store shouldn’t be an issue for Bobby, but it is for Hank when he realizes it belongs to his own mom-and-pop. As events spiral out of the brothers’ control, their father Charles (Albert Finney), turns his grief into a hunt for justice no matter where the trail leads.

That trail explores more than just complications in the aftermath with people who know too much and want much more. There’s also a delicate interweaving of the family dynamic who are driven further apart by the tragedy. Hank has always lived in the shadow of the more successful Andy and through subtle touches in Hawke’s scenes we sense the past of the youngest has constantly revisited him on behalf of the two alpha males of the family reminding Hank of his weaknesses. While not exactly consciously, it may provide a workout of his inner wuss to partake in an affair with his brother’s wife; a relationship losing its luster that Andy IS all-too conscious of. Any disappointment derived from Hank’s life choices still comes second to dad’s strained rapport to his first born, a connection that is hard to find warmth in even in their most grief-stricken period.

This is Greek tragedy in its purest form that is nevertheless slightly tainted by geek cinema in its most puerile. Back and forth we go, flashbacking and catching up and doubling back on itself that works in setting things in motion, but becomes an unnecessary distraction once Kelly Masterson’s screenplay produces more than just its criminal aces. A more straightforward narrative would have gone a long way to not just ramp up the tension but bring the rivets of this family’s downfall to slowly melt until we are all burned by the final shocker. Shifting the time structure is more often about allowing us to piece together a puzzle and then pulling one rug after another on discoveries about who may have been involved or a key piece of info that puts everything into perspective. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead doesn’t have that key, and that’s fine, but don’t just gimmick yourself out to the point where you become just another version of the reverse Seinfeld episode.

Hardly ruining the film, (just muting its overall impact), Lumet and his actors do great work up and down. From Hoffman’s strong exterior slowly cracking to Hawke consistently behaving the part of the more sympathetic amateur, they are leading a pack of pros filling what would easily have been minor throwaway roles. Marisa Tomei is more than just a fabulous naked body throughout (although that's amply on display as well) while O’Byrne and particularly Michael Shannon take center stage in their brief appearances. But it’s Albert Finney who takes charge of the film’s final hour, monitoring his sorrow with the rage that he’s the only one who cares about what he’s lost. It’s a more restrained take on the similar role Sean Penn portrayed in Mystic River. Performances alone it’s easy to recommend the film; Lumet’s strongest work since 1997’s underseen Night Falls On Manhattan. It’s just unfortunate that the title reflects the film’s weakness since the devil is in the details and there is no “before” to his knowledge that it’s not going to end well.

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originally posted: 10/26/07 14:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2007 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

9/14/17 morris campbell good not great 4 stars
12/28/15 wendell otis maness freddy dead, nat guard gots him 5 stars
4/30/15 darryl schultz It kept me glued to the screen throughout,which is more than I can say of 95% of movies. 5 stars
4/16/12 RLan Weak script and jumped around too much. A good one to skip. 2 stars
12/01/10 wendell maness freddy maness dead kaput i liked this film alot 5 stars
6/11/10 MP Bartley Hoffman shines, Hawke struggles, and the film is dramatically inert. 2 stars
7/13/09 Carol Baker Good Actors but only average plot 3 stars
3/13/09 bronson great great movie. wished it ended more completely 5 stars
2/01/09 Anonymous. wow...what an ending! 5 stars
1/03/09 Lumet is a genius Great stuff. 4 stars
1/02/09 mr.mike Very good , despite the unnecessary time shifting. 4 stars
11/23/08 brian Brilliantly performed and directed but VERY depressing. 4 stars
11/12/08 viagra hi webmasters good 2 stars
8/05/08 R.W. Welch The problem here is there is no one to root for; ergo, not very involving. 3 stars
5/30/08 Proper amateur film critic Brilliant. from one of the truly great directors of all time 5 stars
5/05/08 Monday Morning Ethan Hawke deserves an Oscar for this. So do Marisa Tomei's sweater puppies. 4 stars
4/17/08 action movie fan fairly interesting but ultimately not exciting enough to make this work 3 stars
3/28/08 joe a movie to watch 4 stars
3/20/08 mona cool post dude 5 stars
2/11/08 Wendell Maness I am dead, yes dead and rotting 2 stars
12/06/07 Ole Man Bourbon Jeez, and I thought my life was a mess. 5 stars
12/05/07 Elizabeth Hoffman and Hawke are terrific. Dark and suspenseful. 4 stars
11/12/07 Butt Acting makes it worth a look, otherwise it's pretty average 4 stars
11/12/07 Bert Kaplan Dysfunctional people bringing out the worst in each other. What a bleak outlook.Distasteful 2 stars
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  26-Oct-2007 (R)
  DVD: 15-Apr-2008



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