Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007): Sidney Lumet’s Family Morality Tale, Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke

Vet director Sidney Lumet is in top form in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, a family melodrama and morality play revolving around a heist that goes awry.
Grade: B+ (**** out of *****)
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
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Theatrical release poster
Working with a first-time screenwriter (playwright Kelly Masterson) and younger actors (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke) must have rejuvenated Lumet, who has not made a good picture in over two decades. And while “Before the Devil Knows” doesn’t belong to the pantheon of Lumet’s great films (“Dog Day Afternoon,” “Network,” “Prince of the City”), it’s certainly above the norm of not only his recent work (last year’s abysmal “Find Me Guilty,” starring Vin Diesel) but also way above the norm of mainstream Hollywood thrillers and mellers.

“Before the Devil” received its world premiere at France’s Deauville Film Festival, then played at Toronto and New York Film Festivals. ThinkFilm will platform the picture, beginning in New York and Los Angeles, October 26, 2007.

The feature’s long but apt title derives from the Irish toast: “May you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you’re dead,” the significance of which becomes clear at the yarn’s end.

At 83, Lumet may be the oldest director to work in the Hollywood system, surpassing the records held by Altman (who was 82 at his last feature, “Prairie Home Companion” and before than George Cukor (who was 82, during “Rich and Famous”). Having made over forty features in exactly 50 years (his first film was the terrific courtroom drama, “12 Angry Men,” in 1957), and having worked with the best actors in American film, Lumet has developed unique skills of smooth telling of character-driven stories that while entertaining also bear deeper subtexts and meanings.

The narrative unfolds in a non-linear way, going back and forth in time, with some scenes shown from various points of view.

It’s possible to enjoy “Before the Devil” as a genre film, an absorbing suspense thriller about crime, and also as a morality drama about a family full of resentments and torn from within, facing the worst enemy–itself. Family stories run through Lumet’s diverse body of work, and here he is fully aware and takes complete advantage of the material at hand, a juicy if middlebrow family melodrama that may be too Oedipal for its own good.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Andy, a stocky broker and payroll manager, who lures his dim-witted younger brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) into a larcenous scheme. The target appears familiar and easy, since it’s no other than a suburban mom-and-pop jewelry store, in Westchester, New York. Problem is, the storeowners are Andy and Hank’s real mom and pop (wonderfully played by Rosemary Harris and Albert Finney).

Even so, Andy claims that there’s no risk and no downside. The duo knows the store’s space (entrance and exit) inside out, its value in cash and jewelry, and they choose a plausible day to pull it off, Saturday morning, when their old folks’ old friend manage the store. Nonetheless, when the seemingly perfect crime goes awry, the damage is irreparable. We are not surprised, due to the fact that we have already seen the disastrous robbery, and we could also predict a disaster based on familiarity with the genre’s conventions.

Kelly Masterson’s script reveals his theatrical background. Though billed as original, it’s more so in the sense of not being based on previously published material than being truly novel in ideas or characters or subplot. That said, Masterson deserved credit for the intriguing narrative structure, which unfolds in flashbacks that don’t obey a linear development, and is considerably enriched by the fact that the same event (or planning of) is often seen from multiple perspectives. Onscreen titles often inform, “The Day of the Robbery,” so that non-sequential turn of events will not be convoluted or confusing.

But it’s Lumet efficient and elegant direction that elevates the picture, which reflecting the new norms, may be the most graphically violent film Lumet has directed. Like Clint Eastwood, Lumet is a proponent of a rapidly declining breed of directors whose approach could be described as Classic Hollywood Cinema, avoiding fancy angles and splashy visual style, if they don’t serve the text, dialogue, and characterization.

In separate interviews, Katharine Hepburn and Ralph Richardson, who had appeared in one of Lumet’s most brilliant films, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” (1962) have described him as “actors’ dream director,” and so did Simone Signoret, who happened to be in one of his worst, “Sea Gull” (1968).

Lumet brings out a darker, more mature side to Hoffman’s already impressive range of performances, and a level of openness and vulnerability seldom shown by Ethan Hawke.

Lumet has always been good in exposing on screen guilt-ridden, complex characters, trapped by mistakes made on their own, or by members of their families (“Daniel”), or by professional peers (most of Lumet’s crime-policiers). Deep down, “Before the Devil” shows how a single stupid act, motivated by greed, spins out of control and leads to chaos and disastrous consequences on both the personal and collective level, in this case the family and community at large.

You can take issues with the simplistic Freudian psychology of the narrative, which is old-fashioned in its generational conflicts (father and sons) and siblings love-hate rivalry. At least part of Andy’s motivation is based on revenge, a result of long-held feelings of being unloved by his father. For his part, the presumably hapless, none-too-bright but handsome Hank seduces Andy’s trophy wife Gina (Marisa Tomei) and they engage in a clandestine affair unbeknownst to elder brother. In the first scene, set in Rio, Andy and Gina are in bed, though we immediately spot tensions within an unsatisfying marriage. A loser, Hank carries his own emotional baggage, as former husband of a shrewish wife (Amy Ryan) and father of a young daughter, who can’t pay child support.

Albert Finney, as the righteous patriarch who pursues justice at all costs, gives a grand, theatrical performance as a man who’s completely unaware that the culprits he is hunting are his own sons. In this and other respects, new picture could have been subtitled “All My Sons,” after Miller’s famous play (and movie).

Though appearing in a secondary role, as Hank’s shrill ex-wife, Ryan dominates the screen and nails her part as magnificently as she does in the current Ben Affleck’s thriller “Gone Baby Gone,” in which she plays a different kind of troubled femme, a drug-addict trashy mom. Expect to hear and see more of the gifted Ryan.

Inevitable comparisons will be made to two other Lumet films about heist-gone-wrong, the excellent New York-set “The Anderson Tapes” (1965), with Sean Connery, and the Brooklyn fact-inspired “Dog Day Afternoon” (my favorite Lumet film).

As mentioned earlier, there’s a long tradition of crime-heist films that goes back to John Huston’s masterpiece, “The Asphalt Jungle,” Kubrick’s “The Killing,” and, of course, Tarantino’s splashy debut, “Reservoir Dogs” (1991). All of these films are based on moral ambiguity, encouraging the viewers to first root for the robbers (albeit for different reasons) to succeed, but then pray for their downfall and punishment.

End Note:

This was the last film directed by Lumet before his death in 2011.

Credits

MPAA Rating: R.
Running time: 115 Minutes.

A ThinkFilm release of a Capitol Films/Funky Buddha Group presentation of a Unity Prods./Linsefilm production.
Produced by Michael Cerenzie, Brian Linse, Paul Parmar, William S. Gilmore.
Executive producers, David Bergstein, Jane Barclay, Hannah Leader, Belle Avery, Jeffry Melnick, J.J. Hoffman, Eli Klein, Sam Zaharis. Co-executive producers, Guy Pham, Joel Corman. Co-producers, Jeff G. Waxman, Austin Chick. Directed by Sidney Lumet.
Screenplay, Kelly Masterson.
Camera: Ron Fortunato.
Editor, Tom Swartwout.
Music, Carter Burwell.
Poduction designer: Christopher Nowak.
Art director: Wing Lee.
Costume designer: Tina Nigro.
Sound: Chris Newman.

Cast

Andy Hanson – Philip Seymour Hoffman
Hank – Ethan Hawke
Gina – Marisa Tomei
Charles – Albert Finney
Nanette – Rosemary Harris
Bobby – Bryan F. O’Byrne
Martha – Amy Ryan