From the Archive: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

This was originally posted at my former digital home. I don’t have much to add today, save for this: Every great director deserves to have a film this strong as their final cinematic statement.

It’s already become commonplace to build any discussion about the film Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead around the advanced age of director Sidney Lumet and accompanying surprise that the 83-year-old had another great film in him. But doesn’t Devil bear all the earmarks of Lumet’s work? It’s terse, focused and smart as hell. Granted, we’re a long way from his 1970’s heyday and he has auteured some truly dreadful films in the latter portion of his career, but its not like we’re talking about Roger Spottiswoode or Renny Harlin or Rob Cohen here. Lumet is one of those directors that just needs the right script. And does he ever have it with Devil.

The debut screenplay from playwright Kelly Masterson is ideally suited to Lumet’s high craft. In simplest terms, it depicts a small-time robbery that unravels. More accurately, it shows us how this petty crime was never properly woven together in the first place. Over the course of the film’s shifting perspectives, back-and-forth timelines and fragmented conversations, it provides deep insight into the characters’ respective motivations and the psychological underpinnings that led them to the low points they’re at. In this aspect, the actors are mighty contributors to the success of the film. It’s no surprise that Philip Seymour Hoffman locks in as a aggressive concocter of the scheme, Albert Finney can plumb the aching vulnerability in a gruff patriarch or Marisa Tomei can show how someone’s hope and strength can be within a hair’s breadth of easily shattered fragility. That Ethan Hawke can outdo them all with an immersed performance as a man whose personal weaknesses manifest themselves in a relentless, twitchy desperation is cause for amazement.

The construction is intricate and balanced perfectly by Lumet. Each shard of a scene reveals exactly the right amount of needed information before moving on. It is a masterpiece of timing. Shots are held with thoughtful precision and repeated scenes serve to enrich the film. There’s not a wasted moment. It is one of those films and screenplays that rewards attention. Details are chosen and crafted so they convey something meaningful.

The film is lean, powerful and infused with a sort of urban urgency. Like much of Lumet’s best work, it moves with the rhythms of a working, restless city. But the film doesn’t just feel like one of Lumet’s best. It ranks in that crowd.

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