Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead isn’t a whodunit. The film is a consequence movie told in different chapters from different points of view. The story is somewhat interesting at best; the narrative is the reason to watch it.
Brothers Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke) are in need of money for different reasons that nevertheless center on women. Andy plans the perfect crime; they intend to rob their parents’ jewelry store—the brothers get the take, the parents get the insurance money and everything is rosy. Obviously things do not go according to plan. Bullets fly when no bullets were supposed to be involved, and two are dead. I will leave out the details here.
The remainder of the film shows the two brothers try to adjust to the situation they made for themselves. Blackmail, extortion, fraud are additional ingredients to help keep the story chugging along. As with every story of this kind there is a general anxiety that grows as the frames stream by, the tenor going from frantic to almost unbearable. As you would expect, there are many dead bodies at the end and it is up to the viewer to determine if there is any amount of “closure.”
As sometimes happens, when I start writing a review, I realize I missed something. In this case my mood indicated that it wasn’t a film worth the time. The story is not original. The path from inception to climax is a rollercoaster we have all been on before. This one is subtly different.
Go, Twenty Bucks, Pulp Fiction all tell stories from different perspectives but each story overlaps so that parts of the entire story are told from two or more points of view. Devil does this but the purpose is totally different. About a third of the film is front story showing the robbery fall apart. The rest of the two thirds come from two additional perspectives, the father Charles (Albert Finney) and Gina (Marisa Tomei). These perspectives are not told from beginning to end, but intermingle. This is what makes Devil worth watching.
Mr. Lumet is a hit or miss director for me. Most of the time, his stark vision and design leave me wanting something else. “Yes I did order this movie, but I expected it to taste better” is the metaphor I use for situations like the one I often find myself with Mr. Lumet. He pulls this one back from forgettable because of the control of the tenor. It works like a heartbeat rather than a mountain climb. You get so far up in one story, then the perspective changes plunging down again only to rise and repeat.
As such, this is not really a casual film. It demands attention and not all of the attention paid is returned in kind, but if you lose one track, you will have to back it up and watch it again or parts of it become very difficult to follow (obviously this comes from experience). I also recommend watching it when you are ready for a familiar story; if you don’t want to see a “story” you know too well, then wait until you can otherwise it is more likely that you will leave it with the first impression I had when I slipped it back into its sleeve.
The performances are weak, which made the film even harder to like. Except for Mr. Finney, each actor was given a character that was just not meaty enough for them. Mr. Hoffman is decent but inconsistent; this can be said for all of the other performances save Mr. Finney’s. This is, without reservation, the worst performance I have ever seen from him.
If you like any of the actors involved, just go in knowing you are going to see their B- game at best. As for Mr. Lumet: if you like his style in general, I think this one will be on par with his better films.
What did you think of this review?