Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
3 out of 4 stars
After capping off the worst decade of his career with the embarrassing "Find Me Guilty," legendary director Sidney Lumet is finally back on track.
While "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" is nowhere close in quality to the classics "Dog Day Afternoon," or "Network," it does find Lumet effectively managing a top-notch script and drawing out some terrific performances from his cast.
The four principals - two Oscar winners and two past nominees - mine the material for all it's worth. The dozens of plot twists are so good, to get into detail about them here would spoil the many surprises.
As good as most of it is, the out-of-sequence presentation about a botched robbery can't avoid comparisons to Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction." Lumet and first-time screenwriter Kelly Masterson also pinch another Tarantino calling card: showing the same scene from different perspectives at various points throughout the film. The repetition adds little to the depth of the story and simply wastes time. Lumet is forcing himself to be hip in a movie where old-school techniques would have worked much better.
Brothers Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke) share a great many things. Both are broke and morally bankrupt, but Andy is a bit more resourceful and motivated. Andy devises a plan to rob a jewelry store, and he describes the scheme to the pliable Hank as a victimless crime. Security is nonexistent at this mom-and-pop operation, and the owners will be completely covered by their insurance. It'll be in and out, quick and easy, nice and neat. Andy can say this because he won't be there when the heist actually takes place.
Of course, the robbery goes terribly awry, shots are fired and two people go down. Neither Andy or Hank thought much about the "what ifs," and all of them come roaring back to bite them in the tail. Both men also have to deal with angry spouses (one of whom is Marisa Tomei in her best role in years) for completely different sets of reasons.
Not showing up in earnest until well past the halfway point, Albert Finney as the store owner must wrestle with some Shakespearean-level, life and death decisions that totally rip him apart. A five-time Academy Award nominee, Finney never fails to deliver the goods. This is just the kind of performance that will make him a front-runner for a sixth nomination.
The movie hits a big snag in the last 15 minutes, when the generally low-key narrative gets a little too gonzo. The story goes from being thoughtful and spare to unfittingly frantic Wild West. It's not enough to reduce the searing feeling of senseless loss, but it comes real close. (Thinkfilm)