Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
A taut serpentine crime thriller, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (hereafter: Devil Knows) is the work of director at the top of his game. After 20 years of relative silence/mediocrity, veteran filmmaker Sidney Lumet – at 83 years of age – produces his finest work since the making of Al Pacino in his early 70s crime classics Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon (hereafter: Dog Day); clearly Lumet is going out fists swinging.
Like Dog Day, the premise of Devil Knows is a bungled burglary, though this is where the plot similarity ends. The opening of Devil Knows sketches brief portraits of two brothers whose lives seem to be spiralling out of control; each with financial and relationship trouble proportionate to their apparent levels of success in life thus far. Down and out younger brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) has a gambling problem and is overdue a thousand or so dollars in child support payments. That his ex is completely unsympathetic does not help, and that his insecurity fuels him to make promises to his young daughter that he can’t deliver on, compounds his problems and the resulting stress. Older brother Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has, objectively, the bigger set of problems as his affluence has led him onto a path of greater vice (think white collar drug habit). Despite the differences in situation both brothers have reached a similar point of desperation.
Andy, being the older and stronger willed brother, bullies Hank into a scheme to solve their fiscal worries in a single stroke. It is a simple jewellery store heist. In the suburbs; no major security; an elderly, partially blind, staff member; insurance will cover the owners’ loss. Andy will plan and Hank will execute – what could possibly go wrong? As with even the best laid plans, several small details converge to turn their whole scheme on its head. What was to be a simple in and out job with no casualties – or even guns – turns into a violent mess with awful consequences.
Running parallel to the crime drama is a family drama which proves to be just as rich a source of drama. Andy’s sense of inferiority and lack of paternal love, which has driven him to both his success and consequent vice, is explored to good effect. A similar dynamic plays out in Hank’s almost unacknowledged betrayal of his brother and his inability to deal with the consequences of his actions. The narrative strands coalesce in an ending which sees the brothers having not diverted their troubles but instead hastened their downward spiral and inadvertently drawn their whole family into the maelstrom with them.
Lumet confidently cuts up the narrative and timeline like he’s channelling Tarantino whilst retaining his grounded New York sensibility. In the end it was not the clever narrative manipulation or the ‘keep you guessing’ factor that really drew me into this picture, but rather the exquisite pacing that Lumet achieves. At first I had expected more action and almost found the movie moving a little slowly, but I soon fell into its compelling and inexorable rhythm. The plotlines roll out purposefully, shots constructed to slowly but surely build the kind of tension the genre hinges upon. Devil Knows is a masterful work of direction to be sure.
You can’t ask for two better leads than Hoffman and Hawke. Both bring the requisite sense of degraded potential and a dark humour which underlies their desperation and despondence. They are easily believable as two different peas from the same pod even if they feel a little typecast. Albert Finney, on the other hand, plays the role of angry parent well enough but occasionally feels as if he’s acting without reference to those around him, resulting in a slightly disjointed performance. I was pleasantly surprised by Marisa Tomei of whom I had a bad memories from various 80s nightmares and one in the 90s involving Billy Zane. Perhaps the role allowed her room to move; whatever the case she impresses as Gina the frustrated, beautiful, and thoroughly shut-out wife of Andy.
Devil Knows is a dark little piece which doesn’t deign to give us an easy resolve. Like Scorsese, Lumet shows the likely consequences of folly whilst giving an eager audience all the drama, action, and risk-by-proxy they crave. Not for the faint hearted, but perhaps this is the kind of film that could help provide some perspective in times of desperation that we might live through and encourage us to consider what we have of value in our lives and relationships, lest we act rashly and destroy our chances at any good outcome. If crime drama or thrillers are your kind of movie then you’d be sorry to miss this gem. Though for my money this film will not dethrone Dog Day as the crowning jewel in Sidney Lumet’s collection it is a work of which many a younger filmmaker would be proud – and this hale old dog is already in production on his next project!
Reviewed by: Jacob Powell
Rating: R16 – Violence, Offensive Language, Drug Use & Sex
Duration: 117 mins
Genre: Crime Thriller / Drama
Director: Sidney Lumet (2007)
Actors: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, Marisa Tomei, Amy Ryan, & Rosemary Harris.
Country: USA / UK
Release Date: Thursday 26 June, 2008