November 18, 2007

REVIEW: Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (B-)

Background: At the young age of 33, Sidney Lumet was nominated for a Best Director Oscar for 12 Angry Men, his directorial debut. That was in 1957. Think. 1957. 50 YEARS LATER, Lumet is still hard at work in the director's chair - this time for Kelly Masterson's writing debut, Before the Devil Knows Your Dead, which supposedly takes its title from an Irish toast. It stars Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote), Ethan Hawke (Before Sunset), Albert Finney (Big Fish), and Marisa Tomei (Factotum). Lumet (who also directed Network, Serpico, and Dog Day Afternoon) received an honorary Academy Award several years ago, and he may not make another feature. If for no other reason than to pay respect to a Hollywood legend, you should probably see Before the Devil Knows Your Dead.

Synopsis: (Full disclosure here: I was inexcusably late, but I know the first few scenes didn't make the movie.) Andy (Hoffman) is a successful NYC payroll executive and is unhappily married to Gina (Tomei), who is having an affair with Andy's down-on-his-luck brother Hank (Hawke). Andy hates his job and secretly uses cocaine and heroine; Hank is a deadbeat dad who can never afford to meet his daughter's needs. After returning from a trip to Rio with Gina, Andy makes a proposition to Hank: rob their parent's jewelry store in Westchester County on a Saturday morning. Incredibly, Hank agrees even when Andy tells Hank he's not going to actually be involved. Hank convinces his criminal friend to accompany him, the robbery goes sour, and both Hank's mother - who was unexpectedly working at the time - and Hank's friend are killed by each other's bullets. Hank, who was waiting the car, takes off without a trace. Almost immediately, Hank and Andy's lives unravel. Their father (Finney) is obviously in distress, they've killed their mother, they don't have any money, Hank's friend's wife knows what happened, and Andy is about to go off the deep end. Eventually their father wises to the situation, but by that time things are out of control, and several lives are lost in the disturbing finale.

I Loved:
+ The scenes featuring both Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman, even when just on the phone.
+ The supporting performances by Marisa Tomei and Albert Finney.

I Liked:
+ The musical score, equal parts chilling and comforting.
+ That nobody got away with anything.
+ The long take during Andy's first visit to the drug dealer's apartment.

I Disliked:
- The predictability of the last shootout.
- The time shifting between days and weeks before and after - didn't seem necessary to the story for me since everything was already laid out. A more straightforward approach would have been more powerful.
- Andy's proposition - how exactly is he earning any of the money from the heist if Hank does all the work?

I Hated:
- The unnervingly loud flash frame cutting between story lines.
- The creepy, silk robe-wearing drug dealer.

Writing - 8
Acting - 9
Production - 8
Emotional Impact - 8
Music - 5
Significance - 3

Total: 41/50= 82% = B-

Last Word: What should have been a really interesting (albeit disturbing) story about family betrayal was for me weakened by the fact that I just really didn't care about the characters. This is not to say that Before the Devil Knows Your Dead is a bad movie. On the contrary, it's well made (for the most part) and acted - but when the story isn't strong the movie suffers. I didn't know enough about Andy or Hank to really care what happened to them, and frankly, they both just turned me off. Some people may say it's better to leave their inner demons hidden, but in this case they were too surprising. Andy just comes out and starts shooting people in the head? In that case I would also have to assume he has done some pretty dirty deeds in his past, but that's not what we're led to believe. I don't know, it just didn't seem like the most realistic good-person-turned-bad movie. I think Sidney Lumet does an excellent job in extracting believable flip-outs from his actors (e.g., Dog Day Afternoon and Network), but there is character development lacking in that aspect in Before the Devil Knows Your Dead. Add some unnecessary flashbacks and bizarre, momentum-stopping editing, and what's left is a movie that just doesn't reach its full potential.

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