Sidney Lumet is an accomplished director who has had several box-office hits…and several films that just didn’t come together. After watching Lumet’s fairly recent Find Me Guilty, a movie chronicling the trial of the notorious gangster Jackie DiNorscio which I thoroughly enjoyed, I decided to take a chance with Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead…it sounds like an interesting premise, has an all-star cast, and can easily be sent back to Netflix if it turns out bad, what do I have to lose?
This is the story of two brothers Hank (Ethan Hawke) and Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who are extremely strapped for cash…Hank to pay for his daughter’s child support and school trip, Andy to keep his hot and fickle wife (Marisa Tomei) happy by funding a permanent relocation to Brazil. So how are these two down-on-their-luck brothers going to get all that money? Why, steal it of course! Andy has a plan, and he ensures Hank that it will pay off well and the jewelry store has insurance to cover everything they steal. No problem, right? Yeah, no problem…except that it’s their parents’ store.
I’m sure we’ve all heard the saying about best-laid plans, but maybe these two hadn’t heard…at any rate, things begin to go awry from the very beginning and quickly turn into the kind of worst-case scenario people only have nightmares about.
The story line begins on the day of the robbery then flashes back and forth to what happened before and after which can be a confusing format (I was especially lost at the beginning) but served very well to slowly unfold the story and reveal not only just how badly things had gone wrong long before the robbery ever took place, but also to show how much worse life got as a result all the way to the bleak end.
I’ve seen a lot of mixed reviews of this movie and I think I can definitely tell why. For one, the film seems like it would appeal to a limited audience as it has elements of a thriller and of drama, but not enough for thrill fans and too depressing and fatalistic for many drama fans. Next…miscasting. Yes, I was a bit surprised about that one too. First, Marisa Tomei is a gorgeous and super-sexy actress whose style blends extremely well with romantic comedies and is fun to watch for the explicit scenes, but she showed her weak point in a scene where her character is supposed to be extremely upset and angry and I felt like she just didn’t pull it off at all. Next, Hawke and Hoffman…separately these two are very talented actors (or at least Hoffman is, I’m reserving my opinion on Hawke until I see a bit more of his work) but together I just wasn’t feeling the chemistry, it was like each one was playing on a different screen that was spliced together later. For one thing, both actors were in some very emotionally intense scenes and when the other is not in it the scene looks perfect, but put them both together and while they are both very good at showing that emotion their styles just do not work together and the emotions don’t blend.
As for the story itself, while it was far from what I expected after reading the film’s description I did actually really like it. It is very depressing, very bleak, the kind of story that might make you feel just a bit ashamed to be human, and seems like some sort of blending of Entrapment and a Jodi Picoult novel. See where I’m getting the “limited audience” from? However, aside from the aforementioned bit of confusion at the beginning it was fairly easy to follow and moved forward at a steady pace, revealing all the little surprises at intervals so there’s a good reason to keep watching.
So did Sidney Lumet succeed with this film? I think so…for my own tastes anyway. I can definitely see where it’s not a film that will appeal to the general population as it does involve some thinking, a lot of twists and turns, and characters with few redeeming virtues. My recommendation is to proceed with caution, have a basic idea of what you’re getting in to then rent or borrow it for a child-free evening at home (remember those explicit scenes I mentioned? Let’s not forget about the blood and gore either…), if you like it you’ll likely want to buy it to watch a few more times and pick up the little things you might have missed but definitely watch it before spending your money.