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 Masterson comes to life with Lumet's touch. It is a surprisingly powerful thriller (ahem), I mean melodrama.
Two brothers; Hank (Ethan Hawke) and Andy Hanson(Philip Seymour Hoffman) have their own share of problems. Hank is way behind in child support payments and Andy is having some marital issues with Gina (Marisa Tomei), and his miss-dealings at work is in danger of becoming uncovered. They hatch up a supposed "perfect" crime to rob their parent's (played by Albert Finney and Rosemary Harris) small jewelry store to escape their issues. Unexpectedly, the robbery goes awry, and the Hanson brothers find themselves in a deeper predicament than ever before.
According to legendary director Sidney Lumet, a melodrama is a film whereas the characters drive the plot rather than the screenplay. The film was originally meant to be a crime caper-thriller but with Lumet's very steady hand, it becomes more a slice of life or rather a very black view of a dysfunctional family. The film begins with a scene in Rio with Andy and Gina making love; yes there is graphic sex and nudity but the way Lumet handles the scene is quite ingenious. The scene serves up a lot of character development for our main protagonist Andy. Gina (Marisa Tomei) is also having an affair with her husband's brother Hank, that also serves up a lot of "amped" up intensity in their relationship. The screenplay by Masterson originally wrote the two as only friends and thank goodness for Lumet's insistence that they be written in as brothers. However dark and bleak the film's premise is, it succeeds in serving up the needed credibility and believability in its characters and the situation they are in.
The film's first half is in a fragmented style and it works. The film deals with Hank, then Andy and then Hank again. The sequences occur 3-4 days before the robbery and gives definite focus as to why and the how the two brothers could come up with a devilish scheme such as this. At first, I had some difficulty believing that two off springs could carry out a crime such as this, but as the film progresses, the character-driven plot is given room to convince. Andy is an individual who just cannot appreciate what he has and Hank is well, as their dad says, "like a baby". The film has some very noteworthy scenes before and after robbery that gives the plot a lot of emotion.
Of course, for an emotionally-charged melodrama, the cast has to perform almost remarkably, and they do. Academy award winner Philip Seymour Hoffman actually carries most of the film, but it would be unfair to say that the film is a success because of his superb performance. Ethan Hawke also does a convincing job as the nervous, "loser" brother who is also a father in a bind. Academy award winner Marisa Tomei's character, Gina may be a little underdeveloped, but the actress does maximize whatever she had to work with. Tomei plays her character with a sort of a mild femme fatale in the beginning, Marisa is so sexy and her facial expressions can work the camera when it comes to emotion. Albert Finney plays the father determined to find those behind the robbery, and his mannerisms and actions display pure emotional pain.
Sidney Lumet definitely knows how to bring the best out of his cast and this film is another testament to his directorial skills. The script may not offer that many surprises, (you can tell from a mile away that the film will be bleak and black) and the climax may feel a bit perfunctory and opens up a few unanswered questions but the structure and the direction is solid enough to immerse the audience. For me, at least, the ending gives an exclamation point and serves up some details left for our imagination and understanding.
"Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" makes for a very gripping and bleak melodrama and it comes with a highly recommended rating from me. The characters do come alive and the film's plot is interesting enough to keep you glued to your seat. You are about to be taken for a ride…
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED! [4+ Stars]
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