Sorry for the delay in posting this — I’ve been working on a project that I’ll post about tomorrow.
“Easiest money you’ll ever get.”
Rated R. Now out on DVD. Directed by Sidney Lumet. Written by Kelly Masterston. Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, Marisa Tomei and Amy Ryan.
Director Sidney Lumet is responsible for classics such as 12 Angry Men, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon and Network, the latter of which is the only one of his films I had seen prior to his latest effort, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, a dark crime drama about a pair of dysfunctional brothers. At age 83, Lumet received a lot of high marks for his work in this film, and while it is pretty well-directed, something tells me that if the name on the credits had been a non-legendary director the reception would have been different.
That’s not to say Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is a bad film — it just isn’t a particularly good one and much of its problems lie in the script. Told in a fractured timeline with separate storylines for different characters (think Reservoir Dogs), the story focuses on an attempted robbery orchestrated by older brother Andy Hanson (Seymour Hoffman) who uses his influence to take advantage of his young brother Hank (Hawke). The film opens with the robbery, and then deals with the repercussions on both brothers and their family, particularly their father (Finney), Andy’s wife (Tomei) and Hank’s ex-wife (Ryan).
The fancy storytelling works for the first initial surprise, but after that the fractured narrative doesn’t add much, as the story basically moves ahead in a linear fashion anyway. After the initial robbery scene and that first (and only clever) revelation, there’s nowhere to go and it feels a lot like running in place. The climax goes way over-the-top and takes what had been a somewhat understated character study and gives it a theatrical, ridiculous ending.
One major problem that I noticed is that a lot of the film is exposition — the characters don’t really talk in a way that real people would and the dialog is often stilted. Masterston’s script seems better suited for a novel, as it does a lot more telling than showing.
The acting is fine, but the characters are not particularly interesting and there’s certainly no one likable, and if a film is populated with unlikable characters, at least made them entertaining to watch. Hoffman is good for most of the film, but not as good as he usually is and doesn’t escape the third act ridiculousness. Hawke plays the pathetic hang-dog well, but his character is so brutal it’s hard to watch, but I guess that’s sort of the point. Tomei looks great but her character is pretty pointless and way too annoying to be a central part of the problem.
As far as Lumet goes, he does a good job, especially with the opening sequence and maintaining a good tone and pace for the first half of the movie. Most of the positive reviews actually feel a little condescending — like, wow, an old guy can actually make a modern looking film! Good for him! Again, it’s not a bad film, but given that Lumet still has something left and the cast is filled with Oscar winners and nominees, it should have produced something better. It’s an initially clever conceit that doesn’t really go anywhere — and the only reason it’s received any attention is because of the talent involved. Unfortunately that talent couldn’t elevate the mediocre script to anything above a mediocre film.