Sidney Lumet’s potboiler Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead probably won’t go down as a classic heist film. Nor a classic drama. Probably won’t even go down as a classic. It’s a shame since it is Lumet’s latest film which he made at 84. True, he’s already had a number of films that are classics, but I hate to think of him as having peaked in the 70s. Simply put, there are two things I love about this movie: Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance and the sub-opening scene where a senior woman is held up by a masked gunman at a strip mall jewelry store. It’s the best scene, because it is both unexpected and satisfying at turns. After that though, it’s forgettable.
The film is structured like an inverted checkmark, or better yet, the heart monitor of a dying man. Starting on a high point, it has no where to go but down, and so it does, gradually. Finally, towards the end there is a sign of hope where the pulse picks up for a beat (ironically, for this comparison), as an old man snuffs the life out of a younger one. Credits roll. Flatline.
The in-between of the film is cursed by its attempt to be more interesting through the exercise of non-linear storytelling. Ordinarily I’m a fan of non-linear structures, but this one doesn’t provide enough incentive to continue caring about where the story will go next. The characters – though acted well – are easily one-dimensional. All the events in the film are a catalyst for, or a result of, the opening scene. It’s interesting to watch for about a third of the way through, but then it just hammers on you and gets old. The reason why is because the story itself – the central theme – is nothing that hasn’t been seen before in a typical mainstream drama.
Ethan Hawke and Philip Hoffman play brothers, both with hideous self esteem issues. Unbeknownst to them both, and quite comically, they share the same woman as a lover – Marisa Tomei, who also happens to be Hoffman’s wife. Hoffman has much darker secrets than Hawke, and eventually they all come out in the wash, but it’s watching him get to that point that’s inspired. There’s a great scene later in the film which is told from multiple plot positions where their father, Albert Finney, has about as much of a heart-to-heart as he can have with his unfeeling son played by Hoffman. It’s a moment when you’re harkened back to the hey-day of Lumet, where his films came super-infused with intense acting and simplistic event-driven storylines (Dog Day Afternoon, 12 Angry Men, Network and Serpico).