Dir: Sidney Lumet, 2007 , US , 123mins.
Sidney Lumet is back on familiar territory with this caper gone awry. This time it's a plot by two desperate adult brothers, Andy and Hank (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke), to rob their parents' suburban jewellery store, which ends up killing their mother (Rosemary Harris). As the truth emerges in overlapping flashbacks, we get a portrait of two failed sons, mired in debt, drugs and alcohol, who are ready to betray each other after their plan to betray their parents fails.
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is a thriller that snarls into a family revenge saga. The indie fan base for Hoffman and Hawke should rally for this one. Marisa Tomei, remarkably sexy in the film's French trailer, has already raised the buzz. Positioning the picture as a revisit of such Lumet classics as The Anderson Tapes and Dog Day Afternoon will help draw the cinephile crowd for the 83 year-old director, and give the film a berth on the video shelf. Mostly-solid acting sustains the two-hour length and makes this a respectable crime story, but an unlikely candidate for break-out success.
The drama opens with a twist on the Dog Day Afternoon story, as a hooded bandit in a mall in the early morning (with a Pacino-esque accent and swagger) orders the elderly shopkeeper to empty the jewellery cases. An exchange of shots leaves the thief dead and the proprietress clinging to life. From then on, the family ties start corroding.
Lumet's best films (Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico) build drama on the familiar atmosphere of New York City and its communities, from the police to employees held hostage in an outer-borough bank. In this film, characters flee their creditors or the police in isolation. Locations tend to be unfamiliar, non-descript apartments, hospitals, offices, or shopping malls, all of which get an extra chill from the blue-grey palette of DP Ron Fortunato's camera.
Kelly Masterson's script starts out dark and gets much darker, with barely a hint of comic relief in the family's relentless implosion, except for a shakedown of the hapless Hank (Hawke) by the dead robber's girlfriend's brother, a performance that carries the unintentional humour of an inept imitation of a Scorsese wise-guy.
As an over-extended real estate broker who is robs his firm to pay bills and purges stress with fixes from a dealer in a high-rise drug pantry, Hoffman seethes through a mass of flesh. Hawke is a convincing loser as the credulous ne'er-do-well brother, Hank, months behind on child support, who agrees to a scam that sounds victimless, and then finds another loser (Brian F. O'Byrne) to help rob the store. In a plot twist that echoes Claude Chabrol, Hank's only triumph is a lustful affair with Andy's wife, Gina (Tomei), who knows he's no genius but gets what the debt-haunted Hoffman can't deliver.
Tomei, unclad for most of the time that she is onscreen, is a seductive presence with no more of a mortal core than either brother.
In the role of angry paterfamilias is Albert Finney, who battles the cops who can't find the killer fast enough, and then fumes into a solitary vengeful hunt for his own sons once the evidence starts adding up. Yet here the casting seems odd. Finney is an unlikely jeweller.
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is at its core a generational tragedy about brothers for whom much has been sacrificed (by parents who operated a modest business) who then conspire to make ends meet by robbing the very hands that nurtured them. This isn't one of Lumet's best, but it's a lament from the heart for a parent who learns what kind of sons he's raised.
Michael Cerenzie Productions
William S. Gilmore
Jeff G. Waxman
Janette Jensen Hoffman
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Brian F. O'Byrne