Apologies for the lateness of this week’s article. The reasons are far too dull to go into, but normal service will resume on Sunday.
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BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD
DIR: Sidney Lumet
What’s It All About?
The story is not an unfamilliar one; brothers Andy and Hank (Phillip Seymour Hoffmann and Ethan Hawke) are both having serious money problems, so Andy proposes a solution; rob their parent’s jewelery store for a quick injection of cash. Of course the robbery goes badly wrong, and family secrets come to a head as Andy and Hank attempt to cover their tracks.
Why Haven’t You Seen It?
It’s the same old story, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead just got swamped in cinemas. Its fate was probably sealed by the fact that it doesn’t fit easily into either the mainstream or the art film category, and the fact that it lacks real marquee names (Hoffman, Marisa Tomei and Albert Finney are respected actors, but they are hardly box office powerhouses). Despite strong reviews, it just got overlooked.
Why Should You See It?
Sidney Lumet, who died less than a fortnight ago, aged 86, gave us several stone cold classics in his time; 12 Angry Men (his debut), Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon and Network tend to be regarded as his finest films, but personally I think this, his last film, deserves to be ranked with those, and in time it will be.
Lumet was 82 when he made this film, and yet it feels like the work of a man at the peak of his powers; it’s a taut and energetic film, one that feels more like a statement of intent from a young filmmaker than the last cinematic breath of a veteran. Lumet seems to delight in playwright Kelly Masterson’s clever screenplay, which eschews traditional linear storytelling and skips nimbly between following Andy, Hank and their father Charles (Finney) at various points in the ten days leading up to and following the robbery. Fractured timelines can feel gimmicky, but it works here because it gives us the privilege of seeing all the angles, and ups the suspense in the process, particularly in regard to Hank’s relationship with his brother’s wife (Tomei).
The cast is exceptional, and Lumet draws great work from all of them. Hoffman and Hawke anchor the film, and do so capably. Hoffman’s Andy may be one of the most totally corrupt movie characters I’ve seen, only the second time we see him he is proposing to rob his parents jewellery store, and that may well be his moral highpoint. Hoffman never makes (or tries to make) Andy sympathetic but, along with Masterson, he uses the background information about Andy’s job and the relationship he has to his wife to draw a detailed picture of a man we can understand; a man trying to please his wife by living beyond his means, whose deceptions are now closing in on him. Hoffman gives an incredibly intense performance of constantly bubbling emotions, mainly resentment.
Ethan Hawke often gets short shrift as an actor, but I’ve always been a fan and, as much as I love Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, this is his finest performance. Hank seems constantly on the verge of meltdown, desperate at every turn and totally out of his depth, but Hawke’s performance gives us layers beyond that; we see him hiding that nevervousness when he’s around people other than his brother, and we see the dangerous ways it threatens to boil over. Both these central performances are packed with detail and nuance, and they are a good enough reason to see the film on their own.
The supporting cast is also full of quality. Albert Finney and Marisa Tomei both do a lot with a little (especially Tomei, whose role in the film’s first 45 minutes is largely that of a naked prop, and yet she still manages to pull out a rounded performance) and there are small early parts for Amy Ryan (as Hank’s estranged wife) and Michael Shannon (fantastic and menacing as a heavy).
The whole film is tense and thrilling, and it is packed with memorable scenes, few more so than the astonishing ending, which is cold, callous and morally complex, much like the film as a whole. Sidney Lumet is the hero here, he directs with assurance and authority, shooting the film with a steely and unstylised eye, and marshals all the elements perfectly, drawing them together into a brilliantly compelling and dark neo-noir, on the one hand it’s very sad that this was his last film, but on the other… what a way to go.
How Can You See It?
DVD releases are available in the US and UK, sadly both are vanilla editions.
Sion Sono’s insane epic about religion, romance and upskirt photography: Love Exposure