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Indulgent acting mars what might have been a hard-edged story. At least we can see Rosemary Harris.

  • Mar 6, 2011
The contradictions, and especially the indulgences, in Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead are queasily evident in the first and last scenes. In the first, which pops up as soon as the lights dim, we have a nude, pale, flabbily fat actor doing Pin the Tail on the Donkey with a nude actress on her knees, hips high, in front of him. The only image that came to mind was of a quivering Moby Dick throwing the harpoon at Mrs. Ahab.
The last scene – spoilers ahead, matey! -- gives us an old man who had to study like a son of a gun just to pass his written driver's test suddenly smart and clever enough to know how to fake out a heart monitor machine in a busy hospital so he could smother to death a gunshot victim and not be caught.
In between these two points are the bones of a hard-edged story of unlikable people that could have been a classic. Instead, we admire the potential but are bored by a lot of the show-off flash. Lumet has always had the reputation of an actors' director, a man who can pull great performances from a cast. Actors, in turn, have always been eager to work with Lumet. At least in part, now we know why. Frequently with this movie, the story, the tension and our interest come to a screeching halt when Lumet permits Philip Seymore Hoffman as Andy to plunge headfirst into "acting"...or to permit Ethan Hawke as Hank to plunge headfirst into "acting"...or to permit the two of them to share intense scenes of "acting," all the while with the camera respectfully observing the performances. Only a disciplined director able to impose his will on actors will be able to convince most actors that less is more. It seldom happens here, and the movie -- despite the potential for classic unhappiness and despite scenes of real tension -- winds up as self-conscious melodrama. Lumet may have wanted melodrama, but he missed the chance to make a good movie.
This is a frustrating situation because Hoffman is riveting at times as a slick, sick manipulator whose life for quite a while has been on the down escalator. Hawke as Andy's shlumpf of a younger brother is stuck in a losing role as an unsympathetic weakling. Albert Finney as their father, who, with his adored wife, owns a small jewelry store, does Albert Finney again. To give him credit, he picks up steam when his character decides to be the avenging angel.
It's Rosemary Harris, however, as the two brothers' mother and Finney's wife, who does the real acting. Harris is one of the great actresses of the American and British stage (and the mother of Jennifer Ehle). Her role is brief, just two real scenes. One shows her affection for her aging husband and the other as the frightened victim of the robbery who decides to resist. Harris knows the value of less is more. She gives to a small part real strength and motivation, and makes Finney's motivation for revenge believable. The irony is that while many movie fans will be thrilled by Hoffman's performance, most probably won't even notice how good Harris is or even recognize her name.
Lumet must have been aiming for tragic melodrama but he wound up with the fake Hollywood version. This was a real disappoint. I have a lot of respect for Lumet and for a number of his actors.
Indulgent acting mars what might have been a hard-edged story. At least we can see Rosemary Harris. Indulgent acting mars what might have been a hard-edged story. At least we can see Rosemary Harris. Indulgent acting mars what might have been a hard-edged story. At least we can see Rosemary Harris.

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March 06, 2011
I kinda liked this one, but I see your points. Nice review!!
More Before the Devil Knows You're ... reviews
review by . January 09, 2009
posted in Movie Hype
Dvd cover
Sidney Lumet, the acclaimed director responsible for "Serpico" and "12 Angry Men" returns with another thrilling slice of human drama in "BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD". The man definitely knows how to make a melodrama seem thrilling and immersive. I'm not going to argue with him, Lumet insists that this film is a melodrama rather than a crime thriller. Melodramas is one of the most underestimated genres in film. Whatever genre it may be under, the script by Kelly …
review by . September 12, 2009
   Brothers Andy (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke) are in desperate need of money and come up with a fool-proof way to get it: They'll rob a small jewelry store. The catch: It's their parents' store.       Wow. I'll say it again: Wow. This movie is the most powerful and exciting film I've seen in a long time. The acting is outstanding, the script is clever and full of surprises, and the direction by Sidney Lumet is superb. Supporting the two stars are …
review by . September 28, 2009
posted in Movie Hype
Andy Hanson (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) have financial problems. Hank's ex-wife never lets up about the child support he owes and Andy has been embezzling money from his company. Andy's wife, Gina (Marisa Tomei) is depressed and pressures him to move to Brazil, where she believes all their troubles will be over. She's also having an affair with Hank. Andy devises a scheme to steal from their parents' small jewelry store and convinces Hank to perform the burglary. …
review by . December 01, 2008
All this fancy flip-flopping fore and aft in time, showing every scene twice, might save money on script but it couldn't save a scrawny turkey like "Before the Box Office Knows You're Dead" on the day after Thanksgiving. It's been done, dudes! Get a new gimmick!    I hope they paid Philip Seymour Hoffman a bundle for this humiliation. He's a great actor but his freckled b_tt does nothing for me.
review by . June 29, 2008
posted in Movie Hype
Pros: Pacing and narrative      Cons: Story as a whole and weak performances      The Bottom Line: If you like the actors, then skip this one. If you like different narrative styles, this one will not disappoint. Still only average at best. Recommended with reservations.      Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie''s plot. Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead isn’t a whodunit. …
review by . April 20, 2008
The full title of this film is 'May you be in heaven a half hour before the devil knows you're dead', a rewording of the old Irish toast 'May you have food and raiment, a soft pillow for your head; may you be 40 years in heaven, before the devil knows you're dead.' First time screenwriter Kelly Masterson (with some modifications by director Sidney Lumet) has concocted a melodrama that explores just how fragmented a family can become when external forces drive the members to unthinkable extremes. …
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C. O. DeRiemer ()
Ranked #32
Since I retired in 1995 I have tried to hone skills in muttering to myself, writing and napping. At 75, I live in one of those places where one moves from independent living to hospice. I expect to begin … more
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Sidney Lumet’sBefore the Devil Knows You’re Deadis an exceptionally dark story about a crime gone wrong and the complicated reasons behind it. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke are outstanding as brothers whose mutual love-hate relationship subtly colors their agreement to rob their own parents’ jewelry store, and more explicitly affects the anxious aftermath of their villainy when their mother (Rosemary Harris) ends up shot. Hoffman’s steely, emotionally locked-up Andy, despite pulling down six figures as a corporate executive, is supporting an expensive drug habit while trying to leave the country with his depressed wife, Gina (Marisa Tomei). Hank (Hawke), a whipped dog of low intelligence, owes back alimony and child support to his ex-spouse. Both men need money and agree to rip off their parents' business, a decision that goes awry and puts both men in various kinds of jeopardy while their mother remains comatose and their father (Albert Finney) lurches along trying to make sense of anything. Writer Kelly Masterson's screenplay employs a perhaps now-overly-familiar time-shifting tactic, jumping around the chronology of the story's events and replaying scenes from different vantage points. The effect is a little tedious but successfully deconstructs the film's drama in a way that shows how such terrible events are directly linked to family dysfunction, old wounds between parent and child, between siblings, that fester into ...
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Director: Sidney Lumet
Genre: Drama
Release Date: November 2, 2007
MPAA Rating: R
Screen Writer: Sidney Lumet
DVD Release Date: April 15, 2008
Runtime: 1hr 56min
Studio: ThinkFilm
First to Review

"A Family Implosion"
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