By Ryan Pike
Crime films are often violent, unrealistic affairs that romanticize criminal activity. In this filmmaking realm, some directors have cultivated reputations for crafting films that show crime for what it is–a conscious choice made by individuals, either because of extenuating circumstances or simply to pay the bills. Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is a stunning return to form for a legendary crime film director.
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead jumps between three perspectives–married businessman Andy (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), his single-parent brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) and their father Charles (Albert Finney). Strapped for cash, the brothers decide to rob their parents’ jewelry store, figuring that the store’s insured and they’re familiar with it. Unfortunately, Hank recruits a hired goon to help out and things go awry, leaving the goon dead and Andy and Hank’s mother (Rosemary Harris) fighting for her life.
The narrative approach taken by Lumet and rookie screenwriter Kelly Masterson is a mix of the scattershot 21 Grams style and the multiple perspective style of Rashomon. Unlike in 21 Grams, though, the story is accompanied by captions informing the audience of the flashback’s time and perspective. This results in a few scenes being seen from multiple perspectives, each one adding a different layer to the proceedings. The clarity of the seemingly-complex storytelling style allows the twists and turns of the later scenes to pack the requisite punch–audiences aren’t too busy figuring out what’s going on to register what’s happening.
Given the amount of hardware won by the actors, the performances are expectedly stellar. Phillip Seymour Hoffman delivers a complex, nuanced performance. Ethan Hawke shares most of his key scenes with Hoffman, but isn’t overshadowed. Marisa Tomei delivers a strong performance as a woman torn between two brothers and also spends the first chunk of the film nude. Veteran Albert Finney is strong when used, especially near the end, but isn’t in the film enough to blow anybody away.
Sidney Lumet has been a filmmaker for five decades, but hasn’t been nominated for an Oscar in 25 years. In 2005, he was given an Honorary Oscar–the Academy all-but-saying “you’re no longer expected to be any good.” Remarkably, though, Lumet’s first feature since the award is his best in several decades. For the cast involved, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is as good as expected. For the director of Dog Day Afternoon and Network, it’s a return to previous greatness.