Director: Sidney Lumet.
Screenplay: Kelly Masterson.
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, Marisa Tomei, Rosemary Harris, Bryan F. O’Byrne, Amy Ryan, Michael Shannon, Aleksa Palladino, Leonardo Cimino.
Sidney Lumet is a director that’s no stranger to crafting intense pieces of work. In fact, he’s a master at it. Just look at a few from his highly impressive filmography like “12 Angry Men“, “Fail-Safe“, “Network” or “Serpico“. He’s also no stranger to a heist movie, having made one of the sub-genre’s best in “Dog Day Afternoon“. In “Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead” – his last film before his death – Lumet returns to that sub-genre and, once again, delivers with aplomb.
Hank (Ethan Hawke) and Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) are two brothers whose financial woes are having a direct effect on their lives. In order to solve their problems, Andy hatches a plan to rob a jewellery store. He calls it a “mom and pop” operation and it’s quite literally that: the store is owned by the brothers’ parents. If all goes down as it’s supposed to, then nobody will get hurt. Like so many crimes of this nature though, things can and do go wrong, dragging everyone down with a devastating turn of events.
Lumet builds his film slowly and assuredly, revealing the characters’ motivations bit by bit before peeling away the layers of their downfall. To do this, he cleverly plays with timeframes; changing back, forward and during the robbery itself. The focus is on the two brothers, as well as their emotionally stilted father (Albert Finney). Of course, this type of narrative device is nothing new. We have seen it used many times before but Lumet’s skill is in keeping it fresh and gripping. In support of his deft handling of the material, the actors deliver outstanding performances across the board; Tomei nails the ditzy wife routine; Hawke is marvellously high strung and weasel-like; Finney lends his usual reliability and there’s a small but welcome role for a threatening Michael Shannon. Unsurprisingly though, it’s Hoffman’s movie. He has a real presence here shifting from secretive to calculated then deadly with absolute ease. It may be unfair to single out one particular actor but this is another example of Hoffman’s incredible ability to completely inhabit a character. His downfall in particular, is of powerful and tragic Shakespearean proportions and he completely captures the intensity of a deeply immoral man.
Sidney Lumet was in his 80’s when he directed this, yet it shows a vibrancy that could easily be associated with a much younger director. With a canon of top-quality films behind him, this is as good and as riveting as anything he has done. Sadly it was his last but what a film to go out on.