Before The Devil Knows You're Dead
For most people who develop a love for the art of cinema they first are attracted to a specific genre or more likely begin to follow the films of a certain popular actor. This was how it began for me many decades ago but then as I grew older my appreciation for this art form started to concentrate of the work of the directors. One of the first directors who caught my attention was Sidney Lumet. After watching ’12 Angry Men’ was I hooked on his style and use of his camera. Now he has returned to one of the genres he knows best, the crime flick. With ‘Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead’ Lumet has given his legions of fans a film truly worthy of being counted in his still growing legacy. This is a taut, well constructed film and even more important it is extremely engrossing and entertaining. While not at the level of some of his masterpieces like the aforementioned ’12 Angry Men’ or his acclaimed ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ this movie stands on its own as one of the better films of the year. The title comes from the old Irish toast "May you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you're dead." It is appropriate here since it does refer to trying to get away with the sins you have committed. The main characters here have more than their share but as is the usually outcome in a crime thriller getting away with things is not so easy.
Now in his eight decade of life, more than half of that spent behind the camera, Sidney Lumet is reinventing himself. He started in the earliest days of television, back when that format offered televised dramas and short films on a regular basis. Lumet has always been known as one of the most detailed oriented and controlling directors around. His long history in filming gave him master class knowledge of the technical specifications and limitations of his cameras and lens. Normally many of those choices would be made by the Director of Photography but usually in a Lumet film the DP is more of an apprentice watching the master at work. In 2001 Lumet took a little break from film to return to his television roots with the series ‘100 Centre Street’. He worked not only as one of the main directors but as the writer and executive producers. It was during this time that this great in the art form of film began to seek new means to express his vision; he began to experiment with the new digital formats. This film is his first in a digital format. He has stated that once the technology for projection becomes common place in theaters he is sure that digital will ultimately replace film. What seems to matter with a Lumet film is not the media used to record the images but the selection of lens, the exacting set up of the lights and precision of the angles. All of this is still present in Lumet’s latest film. For Lumet the camera should never be a simple voyeur. There is always far more to his films than recording the events. He uses the camera as in integral part of the action, a participant. In ’12 Angry Men’ he changed the lens and height of the camera to slowly increase the feeling of claustrophobia. With ‘Prince of the City’ all the characters lied so his camera never reflected reality only a skewed version of it. In this film the camera is once again in the middle of everything. It reveals details for the audience to catch and associate with the plot. Lumet also departs from his normal style by presenting the story out of chronological order. The time line leaps around keeping the audience on its toes at all times. He also uses titles for the segments in a fashion similar to another outstanding director, Quentin Tarantino.
Also adding to the novel feel of the film is the choice Lumet made in the screenwriter. This is the first script for scribe Kelly Masterson but you would never know it. The story is rich in detail with plot lines woven together line a fine tapestry. His script covers a topic often found in a Lumet production; the consequences of our decisions. Every character in this film in some way or another builds their own traps. The situations take otherwise reasonable men and forces them into the most unreasonable of circumstances. One bad choice can echo through not only the person’s life but pull others into the mayhem that certainly will follow. This fits in nicely with the toast quoted in the title. We all have sins that we want to slip past.
Andy Hanson (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is an average sort of guy who works as an executive in a financial firm. His neat appearance is more a front for the public than a reality. Andy has a nasty drug habit and typical of people very involved with illicit substances he finds himself in desperate need of a fast influx of cash. He has been embezzling from the firm he works for to pay his drug debts. Now this crime is about to come to light and Andy is backed into a corner. His crashing life has had its toll on his marriage. Things have not been very good between Andy and his pretty wife Gina (Marisa Tomei). The film opens with them in Rio in the aftermath of marital bliss but typical of this film that is getting ahead of the story. Andy’s younger brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) is also experience a cash flow crisis of his own. His ex-wife Martha (Amy Ryan) is on his case about his inability to pay for their daughter’s school trip to see ‘The Lion King’. This is only one aspect of his nature as a dead beat dad. The two brothers decide that there is only one way out of their mutual financial woes, rob the jewelry store owned by their parents, Nanette (Rosemary Harris) and Charles (Albert Finney). Since they can’t very well rob their own parents without being recognized they enlist the aid of a friend of Hank, Bobby (Brian F. O'Byrne). Things go terribly wrong as the robbery takes place. Bobby fires at Mom as she fires a gun at him leaving Bobby dead and Nanette in a coma. To complicate matters further it is revealed that Gina has been having an affair with brother Hank. Dad begins to put things together and sets out to track down his sons and bring them to justice.
Not only is there incredible talent behind the camera the actors are the best possible. Usually Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the common man with a tendency towards being weak willed. Here he is the dominate brother, the one taking charge. This is juxtaposed against his co-star Ethan Hawke who more typically is the stronger character. They are both talented so both playing against type is a challenge they are more than capable of handling. The both offer up some of the best performances in their fantastic careers. Another great presentation here is by Marisa Tomei. She is so versatile that the moody part here is pure enjoyment to view.
The DVD is released by ThinkFilms through Image Entertainment. Once again they bring something well worth having to DVD. The DVD features anamorphic video and a full Dolby 5.1 sound track. If you are a Lumet fan already this is a must have. If not this film will have you running to get his earlier works.