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Tuesday, February 5, 2008


Sidney Lumet is one of those legendary directors who’s directing credits read like a list of classic movies. Under his belt are such classics as 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon and Network. Over the last few years, he hasn’t been on as notable form, even hitting the depths by casting Vin Diesel in his last movie, Find Me Guilty. But that slip-up aside, he makes some great casting decisions with his latest film, Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead.

Before The Devil Knows Your Dead is a heist movie that relies on character exploration rather than the thrills of the robbery. The film opens with the robbery in question. The robbery is masterminded by Andy, who ropes his brother into the operation. Andy is an accountant for a real estate firm. He’s worked his way up from humble beginnings, and is now on a six figure salary. Along with that success comes the problems that can be associated with it. He has a drug problem that is spiralling out of control and he’s finding it difficult to maintain the high life for his wife. Andy’s brother Hank is the opposite of his brother. He’s constantly referred to as a loser. He’s strapped for cash, missing alimony payments, and struggling to keep his daughter in a rich school. While he’s somewhat morally superior to his brother, he’s weaker in personality, and is easily cajoled into the plan. But the plan goes desperately wrong and each step the brothers take to right the situation leads them down a more dangerous and morally corrupt path.

While this film is a heist film, the heist is not the centre point of the film. It happens at the beginning of the film, and sets events in motion. The rest of the film examines events just before the heist, and how the brothers deal with the consequences of the disastrous plan. It’s an examination of sibling rivalry and moral corruption. The film is structured in a number of flashbacks. While this structure is certainly up to speed with modern filmmaking (think Memento, but not with everything running backwards), it sometimes kills the pace of the film. Just when things heat up, the film flies back to previous events and shows what happened from a different point of view.

But while this slows the film in terms of pacing, it is an interesting way of showing characterisation. And it’s here where the film’s strength lies. Lumet’s worked with some of the best actors in the business, and this time, he’s cast one of the finest actors around. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Andy and once again delivers a fantastic performance. Hoffman completely embodies each of his characters, and while he’s got the creepy factor down (Punch-Drunk Love, Charlie Wilson’s War), he can also play characters not so odd. And while Andy is morally corrupt, he’s not a creep. However, that doesn’t detract from Hoffman’s performance. It’s every bit as good as everything he does.

Playing against Hoffman as Hank is Ethan Hawke. Hawke’s a very reliable actor, and it’s no easy job going up against someone like Hoffman. But Hawke does a fine job here, playing Hank as weak as the written character demands. It’s a great performance that contrasts Hoffman’s, and Hoffman never dominates the film. This is also a credit to Lumet’s direction that he gets such quality performances from his leads. Albert Finney and Marisa Tomei provide excellent support as Andy and Hank’s father and Andy’s wife.

While the film does seem to drag at times, Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead still is a pretty good thriller. This is mostly down to the performances from the leads. The direction is kept as snappy as possible, but the flashbacks kind of bog it down. Worth checking out at least once.

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