Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
by Jef Burnham
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Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is the latest effort of legendary director Sidney Lumet. Lumet is probably best known for 12 Angry Men, Network, and his work with a young Al Pacino in Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon. His work is characterized by impeccably-framed, yet ultimately unobtrusive cinematography—the film’s success with the audience riding on the performances and the screenplay rather than fancy camerawork. The faith Lumet places in his cast and screenwriters does not go unrewarded in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, an emotionally turbulent thriller about the violent breakdown of a dysfunctional family, starring Academy Award nominees Ethan Hawke and Albert Finney, and Academy Award winners Philip Seymour Hoffman and Marisa Tomei.
Hank and Andy Hanson are two loser brothers, whose dysfunctional relationship is a drop in the bucket compared to the mess they’ve made of the rest of their lives. Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a fairly successful real estate accountant, who owes much of that success to embezzlement. The only significant people in Andy’s life are his bitter, flamboyant drug dealer and his frigid wife, Gina (Marisa Tomei), who is having an affair with Andy’s brother, Hank. Hank (Ethan Hawke) sleeps on a hide-a-bed in a drab studio apartment, yet finds himself paying $1000 a month in child support, as well as paying for all his daughter’s schooling, field trips, plus any other expenses dreamed up by his malicious ex-wife.
When Andy’s embezzlement and Hank’s debt catch up with them, they need a fast fix. Unfortunately for them, they turn out to be as inept in crime as they are with interpersonal communication. Things get a lot worse for the duo, already at the ends of their respective ropes, when they botch what should be a simple robbery of the family’s jewelry store.
Contrary to what you would expect, the robbery takes place in the first ten minutes of the film. From there, the tension escalates as the film jump backward and forward, much like Kubrick’s The Killing, where we inch closer and closer to the some unpredictable denouement, taking two steps forward, one step back all the way. The film’s frenzied structure seems to follow the brothers’ and their father’s (Albert Finney) erratic trains of thought, as they try to piece together what went wrong.
The structure is one of the chief tools utilized by Lumet to create the film’s suspense, which is greatly intensified by the film’s unique sense of realism. Lumet combines his naturalistic cinematography, which he has been fine-tuning since Dog Day Afternoon, with the real world light and shadows afforded by high-definition technology. The film was shot on the Genesis camera, which produces a product virtually indistinguishable from film.
The film’s producer, Michael Cerenzie, recently explained in an interview with Film Monthly, the benefits of HD technology. “[It] allows you to have a multi-camera setup, simultaneously running. So what it does is it really saves time. You don’t have to relight… You can have a very dramatic scene between Andy and Hank… and you can have their reactions simultaneously captured because you can afford to roll both cameras.”
Lumet’s impressive technical work on Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is supported by an incredibly talented cast. Philip Seymour Hoffman is superb as usual, placed opposite Marisa Tomei, who plays Gina with an air of mystery, leaving the audience struggling to distinguish the character’s motivations. Albert Finney is heart-breaking as a man whose search for answers is ignored by everyone, including his family, because they see him as nothing more than an old man. But the highlight performance of the film for me was Ethan Hawke, who has never been more convincing, portraying Hank with seemingly unending layers. His uncomfortably frantic nature in the face of stress adds tension to even the most mundane of scenes.
Though Lumet is 83-years-old and has been involved with upwards of seventy projects for film and television since his debut as an actor in 1939, he proves with Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead that he is still a powerful cinematic force, effectively tackling edgy films, using modern technology that most younger directors probably wouldn’t have the confidence to work with. And he’s not done yet. He’s already in pre-production for another project with producer Michael Cerenzie, tentatively slated for release in 2009.
Jef Burnham is a writer and film critic living in Chicago.
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