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 50 years, you’re going to make some stinkers. What is surprising is how many classics of American cinema this one man has crafted.
12 Angry Men, Fail-Safe, The Pawnbroker, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Prince of the City and The Verdict — if Lumet never made another significant screen statement after the last of these films, directed 25 years ago, his filmmaking career would still stand as one of the truly great ones of all time. But he has, and it’s among the most powerful pictures he’s ever produced. 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, whose financial troubles are accordingly far more ominous. The payroll manager for a large Manhattan real estate firm, he’s been embezzling in order to support his vacuous wife (Marisa Tomei) in the style to which she’s accustomed. Now 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 describes as “a small mom-and-pop operation.” The twist is that the mom and pop are, in fact, the thieves’ own mother (Rosemary Harris) and father (Albert Finney). Hawke’s character is incredulous, but Hoffman assures him it’s a victimless crime. The business is insured. Both brothers worked in the store as boys and 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 multiply exponentially. Lumet employs a fractured narrative technique that zigzags among time frames and vantage points, an approach that has become increasingly trendy and tiresome in recent years. He makes masterful, vigorous use of it, however, and Kelly Masterson’s startlingly fine script lays the foundation for virtuosity both behind and in front of the camera.
This is a motion picture that has secondary characters more vivid and riveting than many pictures’ leads. There’s 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; Finney as a husband searching for the criminals responsible for his wife’s murder, only to learn with horror that they’re 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 shit 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.