Thursday, January 10, 2008

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

I nearly ordered this on video before seeing it, as one of the greatest long-term sales was ending with 2007 - Amazon's 10% off for people who bought into HD during 2006. For whatever reason, the discount wasn't registering, so there was no particular need to pre-order in four-plus months in advance.

I'll definitely be picking it up, though - it's a pure delight. Just a matter of deciding on the format.

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 1 January 2008 at the The Somerville Theatre #2 (first/second-run)

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead knows every trick in the book. It flashes forward and back, shows us different sides to several scenes, and builds tension up for small things so well that the big things catch the audience almost completely off guard. The quick description of the story may not sound like much, but the execution is close to dead-perfect.

That story has two brothers - Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke) - hatching a plan to rob their parents' jewelry store. The way they figure it, everything is insured and having worked there as teenagers, they know the place so well that they can control the situation and nobody will get hurt. Things don't go as planned, though, and the aftermath creates all sorts of tensions among the family, even if nobody knows the whole story.

The robbery is the second scene in the movie before we jump back in time a few days to see how Hank and Andy each arrived at that point. It's hard to really know at what point the decision the point to tell the story out of chronological order was made just by watching the film, but writer Kelly Masterson and veteran director Sidney Lumet certainly make it feel like this is the only way it could be done. It's a bit of a gimmick, of course, but the point of the device is seldom to hide information or make the audience re-examine the same moment with new information. That happens, of course, but just as often revisiting a scene mainly seems to be to allow the audience to fix events in the film's timeline. The greatest benefit, though, is in how it allows us to concentrate on Andy, Hank, or their father Charles (Albert Finney) individually; we get a good look at what each is doing or thinking without having to cut away because what someone else is up to at that moment is also important.

For all that Lumet is cutting the film together a bit unconventionally on the large scale, he's fairly old-school within any given segment. The robbery segment, for instance, is a great little mini-movie on its own: It gives us just enough time to get familiar with the geography of the store and parking lot without doing anything so obvious as a guided tour, works some tension with the clash of the masked robber and the old woman (Rosemary Harris), and ends on a nice, decisive bit of action. There's a clear point to each segment, and very little wasted time during any. Even the opening of the film, which might just seem like an excuse for some nice skin, does a nice job of establishing that these characters have known happiness and are trying to get back there.

What's especially impressive is how the film stays on target despite the many different directions Masterson and Lumet potentially have to go off on tangents. There's drug dealers, whether or not to take someone off life support, an audit of the real estate company where Andy and Hank work, and other things that could have potentially wound up dominating the film. Everything winds up tying back into the basic story of how the aftermath of the robbery ripping the family apart. It's a tight little thriller even though a lot is going on.

The filmmakers have a very nice cast working for them. Philip Seymour Hoffman is icy as Andy, but he's also desperate, and it's a blast to watch how the latter starts to take over as the film goes along. Hoffman somehow manages to keep Andy from becoming a simple villain, despite making him pretty scummy. Ethan Hawke can barely compete as the mostly sad-sack brother, although that's partly the point: Hank's just as desperate, and it's why Andy can lead him around. Albert Finney makes Charles a destroyed bear of a man, not quite brimming with rage but with no shortage, either. Marisa Tomei gives what may be her best performance in years as Andy's wife; she makes her beauty intimidating without being overtly demanding.

The best recommendation I can give for this movie as a thriller, though, is that there's always the sense that it can go in any direction. I'm not talking about twists, just saying that Masterson and Lumet present us with situations where their characters could be pushed in several directions, and keep doing so almost non-stop for two hours.

Also at eFilmCritic, along with four other reviews

1 comment:

cheks900 said...

I will surely watch this flik.
i really enjoyed your blog. i will be coming back.
great job.