Although it’s marred by an arbitrary ending, ‘Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead’ is a gripping little thriller that’s as engaging as it is bleak. Eighty-three-year-old director Sidney Lumet orchestrates this tale of lethal family dysfunction with finesse that recalls his earlier hits like ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ and ‘Prince of the City.’ Somehow, Lumet and his expert cast are able to make his shady characters compelling even though these folks might pause for only a passing thought before stabbing each other in the back, literally.Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman star as Hank and Andy Hanson, a couple of brothers whose financial shortfalls have led them to rob their own parents’ jewelry store.
The shrewd and persuasive Andy figures the heist will be a “victimless” crime because their parents Charles and Nanette (Albert Finney and Rosemary Harris) have heavily insured the business. From spending a lifetime visiting their parents, the siblings know the layout of the store and can get around the security arrangements.
Needless to say, the heist, which actually opens the movie, is a disaster.
Through a series of flashbacks we see the seeds of disaster being sewn. The broken chronology can be off putting at first, but it allows Lumet and novice screenwriter Kelly Masterson to let the audience discover vital information the characters lacked before falling to the quagmire.
Masterson effortlessly puts his characters through a seemingly endless string of unpleasant surprises. In addition to providing the necessary jolts, we slowly learn things about how the Hanson family has reached their fate. The characters become darker, but their later actions make more sense. Stable, upright, happy families don’t do what the Hansons do.
The redoubtable Hoffman is typically solid as Andy, a fellow whose slick, confident manner belies the toll his vices are taking on him. Hawke manages to hold his own against Hoffman. His Hank is a hopeless nebbish, but he’s compelling because his motive is simply that he’s broke. In the sinister company he keeps, Hank almost seems virtuous.
Masterson’s wizardry runs out toward the end, and he and Lumet have saddled Marissa Tomei with an underwritten role. She still manages to come up with interesting nuances to the character. But Masterson is so accomplished during the film’s highlights that it feels like a letdown when he can’t continually cause the Red sea to part.Luckily, Lumet’s sense of pacing and tone are unerring. “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” brims with compassion and insight about people who lack both.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2007 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.