Sidney Lumet is the very definition of a ‘veteran director’, having been making films since 1957’s Twelve Angry Men, more than half of the duration of cinema’s relatively short history. Along the way, he has given us the likes of Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, The Hill and Network to name but a few. However, the latter, the last of his great films, came in 1976, and has been off the boil for quite a significant time; the dire likes of A Stranger Among Us, in which Melanie Griffith has to solve a crime by going undercover in the Hassidic Jewish community, seem almost too ridiculous to be true. So it is with a degree of relief to report that Lumet’s new film, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is a perfectly watchable thriller, intruiging in design, and a set of strong performances from its leads. But, contrary to some opinions, it is no masterpiece.
Familial ties never looked so close, or as strained, as they do here; Andy and Hank, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke respectively, are brothers who are both in dire need of money: Andy to feed his out of control spending on his drug habits, Hank to pay his estranged wife and daughter. Andy has a seemingly simple plan: to rob a ‘mom and pop’-run jewellery store when the owners are out and a half-blind old lady is looking after the place; the insurance cover would make the crime essentially a victimless one, he adds unconvincingly. There is, however, one problem: it is their parents’ store. Things inevitably go horribly wrong, and the brothers find themselves in more than a spot of bother.
The film is contructed in an unusually non-linear way; we begin with the robbery, but time jumps backwards and forwards through the course of the film, revealing new details about the relationships between the brothers, their parents and various third parties, most significantly Andy’s wife, played by an almost perpetually topless Marisa Tomei. While initially this seems an interesting device, coherently guiding us through the narrative, it eventually runs out of steam, jarring past the first half of the duration.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is undeniably the greatest character actor working in Hollywood today, and here again he delivers a new, unique, fully-fleshed-out character from his seemingly bottomless stock of personalities. The relationship between himself and Ethan Hawke’s Hank is suitably tense, with the believable air of a slightly frosty fraternal bond, despite the complete lack of mutual physical resemblance. Albert Finney as their father is solid as ever, though his role is slightly thankless, as is Marisa Tomei’s.
Some reviews have gushed about the film, raving about its tight construction, moral unsettlingness and its suspenseful air of tension. Some of these have overstepped the mark somewhat; Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is an impressive piece of work, especially for an 80-plus year-old director whose recent form has been so poor, but it is also strangely unsatisfying, not sufficiently fleshed out in parts, and thinks itself a little too clever for its own good.