Film Review: Before the Devil Knows You”re Dead

Dec 4, 2007 at 7:48 pm

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead   2 stars
Starring Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, Marisa Tomei, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Aleksa Palladino. Directed by Sidney Lumet. Released by ThinkFilm. Rated R; 2:03.

    “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” has been acclaimed by critics — critics who apparently saw a different movie than I did. Many insist that this film is a smart, engrossing noir and a triumphant return to form for director Sidney Lumet. That sounds like a good movie, which is a strange, because what I saw was ham-fisted, over-acted and ridiculous.

    The film opens with Philip Seymour Hoffman screwing Marisa Tomei from behind, her breasts heaving during the one long, uninterrupted shot. Yes, this scene does have its charms — well, two of them — but it also betrays the level of director Lumet’s thinking. This is not the high-minded film that the critics have made it out to be, but really just an over-hyped exploitation flick.

    Hoffman, playing coked-out, over-extended salaryman Andy, is by far the best thing about the film. He’s a pathetic red-faced man-child, but it’s hard to take your eyes off him. It’s Andy’s idea to rope his younger brother (Ethan Hawke) into a scheme to rob a suburban mom-and-pop jewelry store. Naturally, it’s their parents’ store, and things go very wrong, very quickly.

    What follows is a predictable descent into hell as the two boys try to cover their tracks before the cops, their family and assorted scummy types corner them. In true film noir fashion, their stubborn refusal to face the music only compounds their problems.

    Lumet, who made “Network” and “Dog Day Afternoon,” is obviously trying to parallel the story of these two brothers to contemporary American life: We’re burdened by debt, alienated, self-medicated. It’s not a particularly original analysis. “Wall Street,” “Bright Lights, Big City” and “Less Than Zero” all did it better. And anyway, it’s hard to feel too bad for affluent people deadened to the world.

    The acting and production are both spotty. Hawke simply isn’t much of an actor, and sharing screen time with Hoffman doesn’t make him look better. Albert Finney plays their father: His constant heavy breathing is either a sign of over-acting or a lung problem that he should get checked out.

    Lumet’s attempts at understated realism come across as just being half-assed. The man’s been making movies for 60 years, so it’s hard to believe he doesn’t know that it takes a lot of work to make a film look naturalistic. By just showing up and rolling film, he’s made the movie look unfinished and fake.

    There are other problems: It blames women for most everything; underutilizes its second-best actor (Tomei); has holes in the plot you can drive a truck through; relies on shallow caricatures; and uses techniques so anachronistic that one wonders if Lumet has learned anything about moviemaking in the last 30 years.
    On the bright side, Hoffman turns in a fantastic performance, but it’s not nearly enough to rescue the film from the crapper.