Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Sydney Lumet
viewed: 05/21/08

This movie, which received a great deal of critical praise when it was released last year, seemed to fly under the mainstream radar quite a bit, which is a shame.  The critics were right.  This film is surprisingly strong, energetic, and intense.  The primary trope of critical discussion has focussed on the fact that this is an amazingly strong and vibrant film from an octogenarian director, Sydney Lumet, who has directed for years in Hollywood with a long list of notable films including classics like 12 Angry Men (1957), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and Network (1976).  Just making a film that isn’t just good but alive is an accomplishment for anyone, certainly.  But to be in your eighties with a strong filmography that stretches back fifty years and to put out a film that has this much contemporary panache,…it’s really something.

The other side of the critical acclaim struck around the performances of the actors, namely Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, and Marisa Tomei, which is also valid.  I’m not usually into “actorly” films mainly because performances of quality can mask an otherwise weak film (and often do), so that is not usually a selling point for me.  But it has to be said, it is one of the film’s strengths.

When did Ethan Hawke learn to act?  I swear that the last time I recall seeing him, he was some still snivelling simp of a twenty-something trading on his disshevelled good looks.  He’s actually good in this movie.  Hoffman is typically strong.  Marisa Tomei has less to work with (this is certainly not a film about women), but she’s good.  And as off-color as it may be to say it, she has gorgeous breasts.  Okay.  It struck me.  I said it.

The film is not light-hearted.  It’s a drama, a crime film, a family of incestuous hatred and resentment imploding upon itself in what one might normally say is in “slow-motion”.  But the motion isn’t slow.  Lumet stops and goes back and forth in time with a rat-a-tat beat that jars and yet opens the story toward a multiple perspective view of the crises and the outcomes.  And that technique doesn’t actually slow things down.  It adds to the multiplicity of the perspectives and the characters, but unfolds with a building inevitability of tragedy that is downright Shakespearian.  Monumental.  Epic.  Nasty.

The bottom line is that this film is very good.  The direction and cinematography are interesting, lively, active.  It has an energy like something a young filmmaker might bring, but with an efficacy that is more than simply polished.  It’s not a masterpiece of vision like something like Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007), but it’s a riveting and intense film.  I certainly recommend it.  It’s good stuff.

And the critics were right.

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