movie film review | chris tookey
 
     
     
 

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

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  Before the Devil Knows You're Dead Review
Tookey's Rating
9 /10
 
Average Rating
8.30 /10
 
Starring
Andy: Philip Seymour Hoffman , Hank: Ethan Hawke
Full Cast >
 

Directed by: Sidney Lumet
Written by: Kelly Masterson

 
 
 
Released: 2006
   
Genre: DRAMA
CRIME
THRILLER
   
Origin: US
   
Colour: C
   
Length: 112
 
 


 
Cautionary tale for the era of the credit crunch.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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Sidney Lumet made at least five outstanding films, in Twelve Angry Men, Fail Safe, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon and Network, before an undistinguished period that has stretched over three decades. His latest movie – which he has directed at the age of 83 – is not just a return to form. It may even be his best.

It has an old timer’s professionalism. Here’s one director who instinctively knows where to place the camera for greatest emotional effect. He’s also got an old-fashioned storyteller’s enthusiasm for divulging information in a way that has us hanging on every scene.

The freshness in his work here, however, must be attributed to first-time screenwriter Kelly Masterson. He has obviously studied Quentin Tarantino’s best picture, Pulp Fiction, and taken from it the ideas that deserve to be copied - such as a non-linear narrative told from a variety of viewpoints, plus that dreadful feeling of descending helplessly into nightmare - as opposed to the ingredients that don’t deserve to be plagiarised but too often are, such as immature flippancy and egregious bloodshed.

Lumet has the experienced theatre director’s gift of being able to draw the best out of all his cast: it’s no accident that 17 actors have won Oscar nominations for his films. There isn’t a duff performance in this movie, and it’s safe to predict even towards the start of January that four will rank among the best of 2008. I’ve seen the film described as melodrama, and there’s certainly some extreme behaviour and powerful effusions of emotion, but the acting is always motivated and proportionate – there’s nothing hammy about it.

Philip Seymour Hoffman (pictured left) is sensational as Andy, a coke-sniffing, podgy businessman and hustler, who’s as greedy as a high street bank. He’s been siphoning funds from his employers’ real estate company, and the tax authorities are suspicious. He knows that his younger brother Hank (Ethan Hawke, right) also needs money – he is constantly under pressure from his ex-wife (Amy Ryan) for not keeping up his child support payments. And now Hank’s daughter wants to go on a school expedition to see The Lion King.

So over-confident Andy suggests to dullard Hank that they commit a “victimless crime” and rob the jewellery store owned by their parents. Any losses will be covered by ma and pa’s insurance. No one’s going to get hurt.

But, of course, things go wrong. And wronger still. And then so irrevocably pear-shaped that the panic-stricken brothers find themselves tobogganing inexorably down through the seven circles of Hell. Managers of Newcastle United Football Club will know the feeling.

In a lesser film, we might be asking why we should care. And, in a sense, we don’t. Both brothers deserve their come-uppance. But as the explanations for their actions are revealed, and the psychological underpinning, we come to share in their horror.

The two splendid leads are helped by glorious supporting performances. Marisa Tomei, at 43, looks even sexier than she did in her twenties (when she won the Oscar for My Cousin Vinny), and she is acting better than ever. She’s utterly believable as Andy’s secretly wretched, reckless wife, who is – unknown to Andy - having a torrid affair with Hank. Through a performance which consists mainly of reaction shots, we watch Tomei’s character coming to the realisation that both brothers are losers.

In a smaller role, Rosemary Harris is impeccable as the leading characters’ sweet but feisty mother. And the great Albert Finney deserves an Oscar nomination, at least, as the boys’ domineering father, who responds to the bungled heist in a way that neither of his sons anticipate – like an angry, but acutely intelligent, bull-elephant.

This is one of those movies which you will enjoy most if I don’t tell you any more about it. However, it’s clever about exploring some weighty concerns – such as sibling rivalry, paternal expectations, and the pressure on men to achieve - that take the film into territory covered by some of the great American playwrights, such as Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill, and indeed go back all the way to Aeschylus and Sophocles.

Mixed in with the tragedy is a fair amount of black comedy, reminiscent of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo, another superb film about incompetent criminality. Lumet’s tragi-comedy also explores the highly topical issue of middle-class indebtedness, and the desperation that can arise from it. The brothers’ ill-judged venture could have been designed as a cautionary tale to anyone toying with similar ideas, to leave this kind of thing to the professionals.

The movie confirms that Lumet in his eighties remains one of cinema’s classiest directors. There aren’t many people who fill their mantelpieces with lifetime achievement awards and then go on to make arguably their best movie. Lumet’s success should be a new year’s inspiration for people of mature years – and talents - everywhere.



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