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Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
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by Peter Sobczynski

"The Ties That Bind"
5 stars

Over a career spanning more than a half-century, Sidney Lumet has dabbled in any number of different genres–satirical comedies (“Network,” “Critical Care”), adaptations of stage plays (“12 Angry Men,” “Equus,” “Deathtrap”), courtroom sagas (“The Verdict,” “Find Me Guilty”), docudramas in which the sins of the parents fall upon their children (“Daniel,” “Running On Empty”) and even a big-budget musical (“The Wiz”). However, the films that he has had the most artistic success with over the years have been sprawling crime dramas in which the moral and ethical dilemmas of the characters–not random car chases and shootouts–have been the primary narrative concern. Along these lines, Lumet has in the past given us such masterworks as “The Offence,” “Serpico,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Prince of the City,” “Q&A” and “Night Falls On Manhattan” and with his latest work, “Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead,” he can add another title to that particular list. Although smaller in scale than those other films–it involves only a half-dozen characters and is set in an anonymous Jersey suburb instead of the hustle and bustle of New York City–but in terms of its ambition, power and eventual impact, it is just as expansive and all-consuming as those broader canvases and the result is one of the best crime films in recent memory.

While I promise to be as vague as possible in regards to the particulars of the plot, those of you who plan on seeing the film should probably put this review aside until you have done so. What I can tell you is that it tells the story of two brothers, Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke), who are beset with money problems–Andy has been embezzling money from the company where the two of them work in order to finance his secret drug habit while Hank is months behind in child support payments to his shrewish ex-wife (Amy Ryan). One day, Andy calls Hank in and tells him that he has the perfect solution to their respective money woes. There is a mom-and-pop jewelry store in a bland and underpopulated suburban strip mall that is familiar to the both of them–a place that will have a good amount of cash on hand and virtually no security presence to speak of. All they have to do is go in one morning when the shop opens up, terrorize the lone employee in charge and make off with the cash and diamonds and sell the latter to a fence who is already on board. Of course, it isn’t quite as simple as all that and as the film progresses, we are witness to both the botched robbery and the days immediately preceding and following it through the eyes of the two brothers, their parents (Albert Finney and Rosemary Harris), the associate (Brian F. O’Byrne) that Hank brings in to help out and Gina (Marisa Tomei), the sexy dame who is married to one brother but who is also carrying on a steamy affair with the other.

Because it deals with the robbery of a jewelry store and because it utilizes a fractured time line that goes back and forth while showing us the same events from the perspective of different characters, there is a chance that many of you have already tuned out on the assumption that “Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead” is yet another knock-off of “Reservoir Dogs”–a subgenre that has already given us a collection of cinematic retreads so useless that a gumdrop like “Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead” could actually be considered one of the better attempts. However, the only thing that Kelly Masterson’s screenplay has in common with Quentin Tarantino’s is the fact that the fractured narrative structure comes off as an integral and organic part of the story, as it did in “Reservoir Dogs,” and not as an affectation that has been thrown into the mix only because Tarantino did it in his film, as has been the case with the majority of the knock-offs. Outside of this particular conceit, the two films could not be more dissimilar in tone or effect. “Reservoir Dogs” was essentially a flashy calling-card of a movie that was mostly concerned with impressing viewers with its heady blend of pop-culture-savvy dialogue, cinematic reference points, iconic tough-guy caricatures and squirm-inducing violence. (This is not meant to be a criticism of “Reservoir Dogs” because it did those thing fabulously well–it is simply an observation.) “Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead,” on the other hand, is trying to be more than just another crime film–it uses the trappings of the genre as a way of illustrating the power of family ties and how they can bind and even choke a person, depending on who is handling them at any given moment. In fact, the most electric scenes on display in the film are not the ones that deal with the particulars of the crime–they are the ones in which the two brothers, both separately and together, slowly and painfully begin to come undone from the guilt and pressure of what they have done as well as their desperate attempts to cover their tracks, which inevitably lead to more pain and bloodshed for virtually everyone involved.

Earlier, I mentioned that Sidney Lumet has been directing feature films for over a half-century. What I didn’t mention is the inescapable fact that the quality of his work has often varied as much as the subject matter–for every unassailably great film like “Dog Day Afternoon” or “Prince of the City,” there have been inexplicable and virtually unwatchable duds like “Garbo Talks,” “A Stranger Among Us” (a ridiculous “Witness” rip-off in which Melanie Griffith played a hard-bitten detective who went undercover as a Hasidic Jew to solve a murder) and the misbegotten remake of John Cassavetes’ “Gloria.” Last year, however, he made a comeback of sorts with the hugely entertaining courtroom docudrama “Find Me Guilty”–one of the most criminally underrated and underseen films of 2006–and now, at the age of 83, an time when most people in his profession have retired from the industry and are only dusted off for the occasional lifetime achievement tribute, he has made a film as fresh and vital as anything that he has ever done before. On the one hand, the filmmaking style has the ragged and breathless excitement of a newcomer who is virtually sparking at the chance of being able to show what he can do behind the camera. At the same time, however, Lumet also displays the control and skilled craftsmanship that he has developed over the course of 40-odd feature films as well as his landmark work in the early days of live television drama. There is not a single wasted moment on display and yet the storytelling never feels particularly rushed–Lumet knows what power is contained in the surprises he has ready to spring and so he lets the story unfold in a off-hand manner that accumulates power in such a subtle way that you don’t even realize it until he ready to drop his bombs in a way that guarantees maximum impact.

The other thing that Lumet has in his favor–an element that he has demonstrated even in his less-successful outings–is his ability to conjure amazing performances from his actors. Although the notion of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke as brothers may strike some of you as somewhat questionable, they are highly convincing both in the way that they suggest their twisted fraternal bond in the most minimal manner possible and in the way that they illustrate the sheer desperation and respective meltdowns of their characters. These are arguably the finest screen performances that either one has given to date and the same could be said for Marisa Tomei as the woman who willingly finds herself in the middle of them. While Albert Finney has turned in too many great performances over the years to be able to say the same thing about his work, his performance as the father is as wrenching and quietly terrifying as anything that he has done–as the film progresses, the once-jovial character that he plays slowly slips away and transforms into the kind of quietly monstrous person whose decades of psychic damage will easily explain why his sons are driven to the lengths that they are as the story progresses.

From start to finish, “Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead” is an absolute knockout and can already be ranked as one of the pinnacles of the long and reasonably distinguished career of Sidney Lumet. The only problem is that it has the great misfortune to arrive in theaters only a week or two before the release of the Coen Brothers’ “No Country For Old Men,” another neo-noir exercise that will probably get more publicity because of its more extensive ad campaign and the fact that there is a good chance that it is the best thing that the Coens have ever done. Of course, there is no law out there that says you can only see one or the other–both are among the best films of the year and both are highly recommended. However, in the case of going to see “Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead,” you might want to think twice about making it a family outing.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=16504&reviewer=389
originally posted: 11/02/07 01:15:14
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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.

User Comments

9/14/17 morris campbell good not great 4 stars
12/27/15 wendell otis maness freddy dead, nat guard gots him 5 stars
4/30/15 darryl schultz It kept me glued to the screen throughout,which is more than I can say of 95% of movies. 5 stars
4/15/12 RLan Weak script and jumped around too much. A good one to skip. 2 stars
12/01/10 wendell maness freddy maness dead kaput i liked this film alot 5 stars
6/11/10 MP Bartley Hoffman shines, Hawke struggles, and the film is dramatically inert. 2 stars
7/12/09 Carol Baker Good Actors but only average plot 3 stars
3/12/09 bronson great great movie. wished it ended more completely 5 stars
2/01/09 Anonymous. wow...what an ending! 5 stars
1/02/09 Lumet is a genius Great stuff. 4 stars
1/01/09 mr.mike Very good , despite the unnecessary time shifting. 4 stars
11/23/08 brian Brilliantly performed and directed but VERY depressing. 4 stars
11/11/08 viagra hi webmasters good 2 stars
8/04/08 R.W. Welch The problem here is there is no one to root for; ergo, not very involving. 3 stars
5/30/08 Proper amateur film critic Brilliant. from one of the truly great directors of all time 5 stars
5/04/08 Monday Morning Ethan Hawke deserves an Oscar for this. So do Marisa Tomei's sweater puppies. 4 stars
4/16/08 action movie fan fairly interesting but ultimately not exciting enough to make this work 3 stars
3/27/08 joe a movie to watch 4 stars
3/19/08 mona cool post dude 5 stars
2/10/08 Wendell Maness I am dead, yes dead and rotting 2 stars
12/05/07 Ole Man Bourbon Jeez, and I thought my life was a mess. 5 stars
12/04/07 Elizabeth Hoffman and Hawke are terrific. Dark and suspenseful. 4 stars
11/11/07 Butt Acting makes it worth a look, otherwise it's pretty average 4 stars
11/11/07 Bert Kaplan Dysfunctional people bringing out the worst in each other. What a bleak outlook.Distasteful 2 stars
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  26-Oct-2007 (R)
  DVD: 15-Apr-2008



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