Sidney Lumet has made some of the greatest films of the modern era. Looking over titles like The Pawnbroker, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, it’s hard to deny his import. He’s also hacked his way through some undeniable garbage including The Morning After, A Stranger Among Us, and the god awful Gloria remake. With his last significant film being the uneven Vin Diesel vehicle Find Me Guilty, many believed his best days were behind him. After all, at 83, the one time master of the TV drama seemed a very long way from the medium’s Golden Age. Even if he never makes another film, Lumet has relit his fading limelight with the amazing thriller Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. Fragmented and ferocious, it’s one of the best efforts of his often uneven career.
It all begins with a botched robbery. The tiny Mom & Pop Hanson family jewelry store is hit one fateful morning, the thief taking everything he can get his hands on, including the life of loveable co-owner Nanette. Luckily, she plugged the perpetrator before he could get away. The loss of their matron devastates the Hansom clan – or at least, that’s how it seems. Father Charles becomes obsessed with finding out why his store – and wife – were targeted, while siblings Andy, Hank, and Katherine are distraught. What no one knows, however, is that the burglary was masterminded by the two brothers.
Andy has been stealing from his job, and using the money to indulge in all manner of perversions. Hank’s failed marriage has landed him in debt, missing child support payments hanging over his head like a dark cloud of guilt. The notion of robbing their parents’ small store seemed like the easy way to solve all their problems. But desperation never leads to flawless execution, and before long, the crime complicates matters in ways no one, not even the conspirators, could imagine.
This is a movie about desperation, pure and simple. Andy, the cocksure older brother, is desperate to get his life in order. He’s been stealing from his employer. He’s been blowing the money on drugs and male prostitutes. He’s convinced his wife is onto his numerous excuses about their finances and his free time. If he can talk his younger brother Hank into knocking off their parents pride and joy – a strip mall jewelry store – all his problems will be solved. And he’s picked the right accomplice. Hank’s situation is no better. He owes his ex-wife thousands in child support. He lives in a rundown, dumpy apartment. He’s tired of living in the shadow of his seemingly successful sibling and longs to regain the favor he once had with his father. For him, the cash would settle debts and reestablish his reputation.
Lumet then locks these two (thanks to an excellent script by feature first timer Kelly Masterson) in a dangerous game of trust and trickery, mirroring their frightening flawed nature with the results of their best laid plans. Plot is crucial to enjoying this crackerjack effort, and yet Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead does something very interesting with the narrative. Instead of playing it out linearly, following the Harmon’s plans from start to finish, the material is mixed-up, Pulp Fiction/Rashamon style. It allows motives to hang over the most innocuous sequences, while consequences cloud the conspiring. It lets us see beneath the surface of Andy and Hank, and once the deed is done, the effect their bungling has on everyone involved.
Lumet lines up some powerful talent to pull this off, and his casting is confident. Phillip Seymour Hoffman, whose everywhere this awards season (he’s also in The Savages and Charlie Wilson’s War), literally bares all as the slimy, scheming Andy. From an opening sex scene with co-star Marisa Tomei to his confrontations with grieving father Albert Finney (who appears to wear a perpetual mask of horror on his aged face), Hoffman is all open sores and conniving deceit. He uses his stocky shape to suggest power, but in his eyes we see nothing but a little boy lost. Equally impressive is Ethan Hawke. An often marginalized actor, he is very good here, turning the hapless Hank into a well intentioned by basically inept adult. He’s the necessary catalyst for Andy’s lofty ambitions. He’s also the mechanism that will drag both of them down.
The ripple effect that occurs post crime is so delicious that to go into further detail would ruin many of Devil‘s delights. Some may see the Coen Brothers in Lumet’s latest, and the comparison is not accidental. Longtime collaborator Carter Burwell supplies the musical score, and his Miller’s Crossing meets Fargo influences are felt throughout. Lumet also loves location, be it a rundown city apartment or an ultra modern rent boy’s penthouse. He explores the space, letting the camera linger on elements that offer insight into the people we are dealing with. In addition, there’s a level of personal juxtaposition here that cannot be ignored. Andy lives in a luxuriant flat, its tastefulness hiding his blackened heart. Hank is practically destitute, his home a jumbled wreck of hand me downs and leftovers. Yet aside from his never-ending money problems, he’s a decent man, undeserving of his eventual fate.
And as the DVD points out, much of this was the direct result of Lumet’s creative input. The original script (which the director calls ‘wonderful’ in the included commentary and featurette) did not have Andy and Hank as brothers. Instead, they were just friends. Lumet purposefully altered that dynamic. Other subplots were removed completely, including one revolving around Andy and his kid. All of this was done to tighten up what Lumet considers a rip roaring ‘melodrama’. The rest of the cast discuss the classification, but once the director offers his definition of the term – “heighten reality with a true sense of over the top dramatics leading to tragedy” – everyone agrees with the categorization.
It all makes for a volatile combination, one doomed to fail and bound to be painful on the rocky road down. Yet Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is ultimately about cruelty of karma, of how one man’s simmering evil comes to taint and twist everyone around him. Andy is indeed the corrupting influence, a disconnected child who feels entitlement allows for any transgression, no matter how horrible. He turns his brother into a killer, his father into an obsessive, his wife into an adulteress, and ultimately, he becomes the literal and figurative ender of life. The title here is taken from an old toast, a beer-soaked bragging about beating Satan at his own game. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead may signal a reinvigoration of Sidney Lumet’s standing, but it’s much more than that. It’s filmmaking as art, and endearing entertainment. Its impact will remain with you long after the final frames fade away.