Sidney Lumet is 83 years old. He’s been making movies for exactly half a century. In that time, he has directed his share of forgettable films. That’s not surprising. You make movies for fifty years, you’re going to make some stinkers. What is surprising is how many classics of American cinema have been made by this one man.
“12 Angry Men,” “Fail-Safe,” “The Pawnbroker,” “Serpico,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Network,” “Prince of the City” and “The Verdict”m––if Lumet never made another significant screen statement after this last film, directed 25 years ago, his would have stood as one of the truly great filmmaking careers of all time. But he has made another film and it’s among the most powerful pictures he’s ever produced, so let’s not start polishing any Lifetime Achievement statuettes just yet.
“Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” is a Greek tragedy with guns. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke play brothers who have almost nothing in common other than money problems. Hawke’s Hank is behind on child support payments. In one scene the love of his life, his preteen daughter, calls him a loser. Hoffman is Andy, a far more high powered character, with financial troubles which are far more ominous. The payroll manager for a large Manhattan real estate firm, he’s been embezzling from the place in order to support his vacuous wife (Marisa Tomei) in the style to which she’s grown accustomed and the IRS is closing in.
A guy who prides himself on seeing “all the angles,” Andy proposes a solution to both brothers’ problems: robbing a suburban jewelry store he initially describes as “a small mom and pop operation.” The twist is the mom and pop are, in fact, their own mother (Rosemary Harris) and father (Albert Finney). Hawke’s character is incredulous but Hoffman’s assures him it’s a victimless crime. The business is insured. Both had worked in the place as boys so know it inside out. Neither parent works Saturday mornings.
Not as a rule anyway. Just about everything that can go wrong does, lives are lost and, in an instant, Hank and Andy’s troubles are multiplied exponentially. Lumet employs a fractured narrative technique that zigzags between timeframes and vantage points, an approach that has in recent years become increasingly trendy and tiresome. He makes masterful, vigorous use of it, however, and Kelly Masterson’s startlingly fine script provides the foundation for virtuosity both behind the camera and in front of it.
This is a motion picture with secondary characters more vivid and riveting than many pictures’ leads: Brian F. O’Byrne as a petty criminal who listens to German speed metal to “get into character” before the robbery; Michael Shannon as the brother-in-law who tries to bleed Andy and Hank after Bobby’s killed when it goes awry; Albert Finney as a husband who searches for the criminals responsible for his wife’s murder only to learn to his horror the culprits he’s pursuing are his sons; and Leonard Cimino as the inscrutable diamond fence who tips him off that Andy had a hand in the tragedy.
“You didn’t know s**t about how the world works or what some people will do for money,” he tells Finney. “I guess now you know.”
At the heart of all this darkness is Hoffman in a role that seems custom-tailored for his talents. It’s a stunning character study written with insight and fleshed out with implosive force. You watch in awe as, one by one, his civilized layers are stripped away by circumstance until nothing remains but a core of age-old hurt and rage.
Bleak, weirdly witty at times and unrelentingly suspenseful, “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” is the cinematic equivalent of a perfect storm. Even in award season, it’s unusual for screenwriting, acting and direction at this level of artistry to come together in a single work. For a director to return to form in such spectacular fashion after a quarter century is rarer still. There may be very little that is nice about the people in this ferocious family film from Lumet but it’s awfully nice to see him pull it off this late in the game.