Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

November, 2007, Mystery

Directed by:Sidney Lumet

Starring:Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, Marisa Tomei, and Rosemary Harris

Director Sidney Lumet has been plying his craft for a long time. He began honing his skills on the old television series “Studio One” in 1948, the same year Harry Truman retained the White House by defeating Gov. Tom Dewey. Lumet’s been at it ever since, moving back and forth from the small screen to the big one in a career that will enter its 6th decade early next year. At 83, he’s had a remarkably successful run, giving moviegoers films such as The Pawnbroker, Fail Safe, The Hill, Serpico & Dog Day Afternoon. So it should come as no surprise to learn that he’s done it again, delivering a fast-paced crime thriller which relentlessly examines the human capacity for rationalizing the unthinkable.

Brothers Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank, (Ethan Hawke) have little in common except a pressing need for quick access to significant cash. Andy’s an officious mid-level corporate type who realizes that he can’t indefinitely defraud his employer while his younger sibling spends his time stalling his wife’s alimony payments and ducking loan sharks while nailing Andy’s wife Gina in weekly trysts at his shabby apartment. Andy wants to make a big score and disappear with Gina to a warm climate from which he can’t be extradited while Hank just wants enough liquidity to stop being a perpetual deadbeat. They decide that the best way to achieve their goals lies in robbing the suburban jewelry store owned and operated by their parents; there’s sufficient value in the inventory to solve their cash flow needs, nobody will get hurt and besides, the folk’s insurance company ultimately picks up the tab. What could go wrong? 

In fact, just about everything, as this tightly-constructed caper demonstrates. Lumet edits the action to dovetail each character’s contribution with the plot’s evolving developments, allowing the audience to see the crime and its byproducts from the participants’ diverging points of view. As Andy and Hank scramble to cover their tracks and distance themselves from the unintended but lethal consequences of their scheme, they only succeed in making a bad situation worse; the trajectory of their eventual undoing becomes as inevitable as it is perverse. 

Lumet is known as an actor’s director and Devil once again validates that assessment; he provides Hoffman and Hawks with the opportunity to deliver case studies in nuanced depravity and the actors don’t disappoint. Hoffman dazzles as the smug, loathsome older brother who bullies his weaker sibling while Hank relies on the little boy lost charm which made him his parent’s favorite. He’s become a parasite; carried along by his Andy’s greed and self-loathing cynicism into complicity on events he’d never contemplate doing on his own. Andy’s rage prevents him from opening up to anyone or anything other than his own appetites while Hank’s perfected a pathetic capacity to be everyone’s lapdog. First-time screenwriter Kelly Masterson’s hard-edged script synchronizes the brothers’ complementary defects, ineluctably ensnaring both men in the bloody aftermath of their “perfect crime”. 

Lumet visual style can be described as nearly theatrical; his stories are almost exclusively urban and he’s not interested in filling the screen with wide open spaces. There are entire sections of this movie which are shot from the perspective of someone sitting in the audience of a live theater; the camera angles are often static and focused on a single room or other enclosed space, providing the actors pride of place in a Lumet production. Cinematographer Ron Fortunato, who worked with the director on his last film, (the courtroom drama Find Me Guilty) evokes s similarly claustrophobic mood here, effectively underscoring the growing sense of helpless isolation the brothers experience as their carefully-laid plans go totally awry. That subliminal sense of desperation is further enhanced by the shadows which envelop nearly every frame with funeral gloom, as though the capacity for evil embodied by Andy and Hank seeps into everyone else with whom they come in contact. 

The storyline here grows so remorselessly awful it threatens to lessen the impact of the powerfully crafted performances the film contains. If there is thus any fault to be found with Devil, it’s Lumen’s tendency to be so bleak he occasionally, (and intentionally?) pushes this drama into the realm of dark comedy.  

The verdict? Brilliant acting, tight editing and evocative cinematography all displayed under the guiding hand of a director who remains indisputably at the top of his game.   

   

 

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