Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (ThinkFilm, R)

film_devil_sm.jpgLumet could, if he wanted to, quietly retire from film, signing off the high note he’s been trying to reach for the past decade.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I’ve been pondering lately how expectations affect one’s initial viewing of a film. For Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, I had to take into consideration not only the thematic linkage between it and the Coens’ No Country for Old Men, which is in the ranking for my favorite film of 2007, but the fact that it was the first film I watched afterward. In addition to that, I couldn’t start Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead without acknowledging my torrid love/hate relationship with Sidney Lumet. On one hand, he created one of the best films of the ’70s, Network; on the other, he’s the man responsible for bringing The Wiz to the screen, a film of such sheer awfulness that it renders me speechless every time I even catch a glimpse of it. Like No Country for Old Men, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead marks a "return to form" for the director, a welcome departure from his forgettable Vin Diesel "comedy" Find Me Guilty and his update of Cassavettes’ Gloria with Sharon Stone.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead isn’t as much a crime film as the trailers might lead you believe. Instead of focusing on the crime itself, which is shown as one of the first scenes of the film, Lumet offers fragments of torment between the three central males: smarmy drug addicted businessman Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman), his younger brother Hank (Ethan Hawke), a no-good father and alcoholic, and their once-absent father Charles (Albert Finney). The plan for the crime is revealed later in the film, where the down-on-their-luck brothers scheme what was supposed to be (and in the viewers’ minds, never ended up being) the perfect crime by robbing their parents’ jewelry store. By ill fate, their mother (Rosemary Harris) is tending the store at the time of the robbery, and bullets end up being exchanged.

Lumet’s decision to fragment the story (actually quite literally, as the scene changes end in a scrambling of the image) elevates Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead into something more than a tale of the perfect-crime-gone-wrong might have. With the early revelation of the foiled robbery, the film becomes a grim tragedy of Greek proportions. In fact, there’s a palpable somberness to almost every scene without an irritating irony that would have just distracted. Andy’s failing marriage with the beautiful but hapless Gina (Marisa Tomei, who’s topless for the entire first half of the movie) strikes the deepest, juxtaposing their dreamlike vacation in Rio with the lousy sex, misconnection, and faded dreams of their home life. For a film that would seem so reliant on performances, most of the actors are remarkably subdued, though Finney, so wonderful in Under the Volcano and Tom Jones, fails to make a real connection throughout the film. With Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead and at the age of 83, Lumet could, if he wanted to, quietly retire from film, signing off the high note he’s been trying to reach for the past decade. | Joe Bowman

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