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Movie Review: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
Directed by Sidney Lumet
Written by Kelly Masterson

83-year-old Sidney Lumet once was among the elite of directors; not surprisingly, his best-known work is from the seventies, with Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon leading the charge.  Directors like Lumet who benefited from the luxury afforded to people in his position in the seventies have begun to go the indie route to make the films they’ve always had in them, but were unable to make, under the ever-changing studio system, now run by large corporations who have taken final cut away from most directors. 

We’re going to see Francis Ford Coppola do the same thing with Youth Without Youth later in the year, and we’ve already seen William Friedkin go the indie route with Bug this past May.  The results have been promising thus far.

In Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, a screwup named Hank (Ethan Hawke) underplans an ill-advised heist with his brother Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman).  It will be of their parents’ jewelry store in Westchester, NY, and it will lead to tragic consequences.  Andy is a real estate accountant who makes some good money but has obviously lost a lot: he’s into heavy drugs and an audit of his firm is coming up and he needs to make some money reappear fast.  Meanwhile Hank is divorced from his wife Martha (Amy Ryan, who with this and especially Gone Baby Gone as a one-two punch has a great shot of getting an Oscar nomination), and has a daughter, and he’s behind on child support payments.  Oh yeah, did I mention that Hank is sleeping with Andy’s wife Gina (one of my all-time crushes, Marisa Tomei)?

The story is told in out-of-order perspectives, so we see the heist from all the critical points of view: Hank, Andy, and their father Charles (Albert Finney).  The middle section of the film is told in the same way, as the characters try to figure out what they’re going to do and get into more trouble.  The final third is a knockout punch.

Told with great style from a debut script from Kelly Masterson (his first ever TV/film credit), Before the Devil is like a Shakespearean tragedy, with a family fighting amongst itself and leading, like all good Shakespeare, to a logical and impactful end.  It also has the good elements of all our recent favorite crime sagas like Reservoir Dogs, Fargo, and Heat, where straying from one’s very important self-imposed rules lead to sloppiness and deep trouble.  It also has Fargo’s Carter Burwell doing his trademark (beautiful, haunting, sometimes quirky) music.

All the actors came to play here.  Hoffman has always played losers well, but this time he’s a different kind of loser than we’ve seen before: vicious in defeat.  Hawke, who can sometimes get on my nerves, is well cast here, and do I even have to mention the greatness of Albert Finney?

This is one of the best of the year, no doubt.

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