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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 36.36%
Average: 5.45%
Pretty Bad: 9.09%
Total Crap: 1.82%

5 reviews, 25 user ratings

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Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
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by Jay Seaver

"Twists the screws, not the plot."
5 stars

"Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" knows every trick in the book. It flashes forward and back, shows us different sides to several scenes, and builds tension up for small things so well that the big things catch the audience almost completely off guard. The quick description of the story may not sound like much, but the execution is close to dead-perfect.

That story has two brothers - Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke) - hatching a plan to rob their parents' jewelry store. The way they figure it, everything is insured and having worked there as teenagers, they know the place so well that they can control the situation and nobody will get hurt. Things don't go as planned, though, and the aftermath creates all sorts of tensions among the family, even if nobody knows the whole story.

The robbery is the second scene in the movie before we jump back in time a few days to see how Hank and Andy each arrived at that point. It's hard to really know at what point the decision the point to tell the story out of chronological order was made just by watching the film, but writer Kelly Masterson and veteran director Sidney Lumet certainly make it feel like this is the only way it could be done. It's a bit of a gimmick, of course, but the point of the device is seldom to hide information or make the audience re-examine the same moment with new information. That happens, of course, but just as often revisiting a scene mainly seems to be to allow the audience to fix events in the film's timeline. The greatest benefit, though, is in how it allows us to concentrate on Andy, Hank, or their father Charles (Albert Finney) individually; we get a good look at what each is doing or thinking without having to cut away because what someone else is up to at that moment is also important.

For all that Lumet is cutting the film together a bit unconventionally on the large scale, he's fairly old-school within any given segment. The robbery segment, for instance, is a great little mini-movie on its own: It gives us just enough time to get familiar with the geography of the store and parking lot without doing anything so obvious as a guided tour, works some tension with the clash of the masked robber and the old woman (Rosemary Harris), and ends on a nice, decisive bit of action. There's a clear point to each segment, and very little wasted time during any. Even the opening of the film, which might just seem like an excuse for some nice skin, does a nice job of establishing that these characters have known happiness and are trying to get back there.

What's especially impressive is how the film stays on target despite the many different directions Masterson and Lumet potentially have to go off on tangents. There's drug dealers, whether or not to take someone off life support, an audit of the real estate company where Andy and Hank work, and other things that could have potentially wound up dominating the film. Everything winds up tying back into the basic story of how the aftermath of the robbery ripping the family apart. It's a tight little thriller even though a lot is going on.

The filmmakers have a very nice cast working for them. Philip Seymour Hoffman is icy as Andy, but he's also desperate, and it's a blast to watch how the latter starts to take over as the film goes along. Hoffman somehow manages to keep Andy from becoming a simple villain, despite making him pretty scummy. Ethan Hawke can barely compete as the mostly sad-sack brother, although that's partly the point: Hank's just as desperate, and it's why Andy can lead him around. Albert Finney makes Charles a destroyed bear of a man, not quite brimming with rage but with no shortage, either. Marisa Tomei gives what may be her best performance in years as Andy's wife; she makes her beauty intimidating without being overtly demanding.

The best recommendation I can give for this movie as a thriller, though, is that there's always the sense that it can go in any direction. I'm not talking about twists, just saying that Masterson and Lumet present us with situations where their characters could be pushed in several directions, and keep doing so almost non-stop for two hours.

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originally posted: 01/11/08 13:28:56
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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

1/13/21 Jack Sommersby Obvious and interesting, with not a single viable character to be found. 1 stars
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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