This review was written for the festival screening of “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.”
Toronto International Film Festival
NEW YORK — After a long series of artistic missteps, Sidney Lumet, 83, makes a smashing return to form with this bleak crime thriller that shows off the veteran director’s many strengths. Pungently atmospheric, brilliantly textured and featuring superb performances from every performer in parts big and small, “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” might not quite rank with such classics as “Dog Day Afternoon” and countless other films by Lumet, but it does make thrillingly clear that he’s still at the top of his game.
Kelly Masterson’s expert screenplay relates a relatively simple story of a small-scale robbery gone horribly wrong in complex fashion. With its constant time shifts and depictions of the same events from varying perspectives, it recalls the director’s own earlier caper flick “The Anderson Tapes,” though this is a far more melodramatic and elemental tale.
A highly graphic but less than joyful sex scene at the beginning sets the harsh tone for the story, which involves the botched plan by siblings Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke) to rob their own parents’ suburban jewelry store.
Both men are leading lives of not so quiet desperation, with each in serious financial straits. Andy has been systematically siphoning off money from the real estate company at which he works, while his divorced younger brother can’t even make the child-support payments to his increasingly hostile ex-wife (Amy Ryan). Meanwhile, Hank has been having a longtime affair with his brother’s beautiful wife (Marisa Tomei), even while Andy dreams of saving his passionless marriage by running off with her to Rio.
Andy’s plan seems easy enough. Hank will rob the store on a quiet Saturday morning, when the only one there will be a single employee. But he makes the mistake of recruiting his petty criminal friend Bobby (Brian F. O’Byrne) to do the actual deed, and things go horribly awry, with Bobby and the brothers’ mother (Rosemary Harris) winding up dead.
The men’s frantic efforts to cover up their complicity in the crime, and those of their grieving father (Albert Finney) to find the rest of those involved, form the heart of the relentlessly downbeat tale, which only gets darker as it goes along.
As much character study as crime thriller, the film features indelible characterizations by the lead actors as the brothers whose flaws reach biblical proportions, with Hoffman’s girth and Hawke’s slightly dissipated handsomeness working perfectly for their roles. Finney is equally superb as their emotionally inaccessible father, especially in the haunting climactic scenes. But thanks to Lumet’s expert handling of his actors, everyone shines, even in the smallest roles, with particularly memorable cameos by Michael Shannon as Bobby’s vengeful brother-in-law and Leonard Cimino as a crooked diamond dealer.
BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD
Linsefilm, Michael Cerenzie Prods., Unity Prods.
Director: Sidney Lumet
Screenwriter: Kelly Masterson
Producers: Michael Cerenzie, Brian Linse, Paul Parmar, William S. Gilmore
Executive producers: Bella Avery, Jane Barclay, David Bergstein, Janette Jensen Hoffman, Eli Klein, Hannah Leader, Jeffry Melnick, Sam Zaharis
Director of photography: Ron Fortunato
Production designer: Christopher Nowak
Music: Carter Burwell
Co-producers: Austin Chick, Jeff G. Waxman
Costume designer: Tina Nigro
Editor: Tom Swartwout
Andy: Philip Seymour Hoffman
Hank: Ethan Hawke
Charles: Albert Finney
Gina: Marisa Tomei
Nanette: Rosemary Harris
Chris: Aleksa Palladino
Dex: Michael Shannon
Martha: Amy Ryan
Bobby: Brian F. O’Byrne
Running time — 123 minutes
MPAA rating: R