Director Sidney Lumet has enjoyed a fruitful career, bejeweled with blinding classics such as "Dog Day Afternoon," "Network," and "12 Angry Men." However, nothing in Lumet's filmography has contained the back alley, concrete-block pummeling of "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," a masterful, rampaging descent into the quicksand hell of desperation.
Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke) are brothers with a swarm of troubles to their name. To break out of their cycle of debt, Andy proposes robbing the jewelry store run by their parents. At first, Hank is uneasy about this endeavor, but the immediate benefit of a quick heist is too much to ignore, and they set off with a local bar stooge to complete the job. When the simple plan goes awry in a very tragic way, Hank and Andy are caged by their misdeed like animals, with their father (Albert Finney) hungry for revenge on the perpetrators who destroyed his life.
"Devil" is not merely a moody film on the temperament of familial impropriety; instead, the feature is downright biblical in the way it demonstrates wrath, the sheer disgust between the characters spilling over the edges of the frame. It's difficult to say if this is Lumet's finest picture, but it's safe to note "Devil" ranks up there fairly high, holding phenomenal command over a multifaceted psychological story involving human beings continually surpassing their lowest point.
Told in a fractured manner that leaps back and forth in time to isolate every character's experience (sold with an economical, but highly effective editing cue), screenwriter Kelly Masterson uses simplicity as his starting point, taking the singular event of the botched robbery to survey the reactions of those involved, and how the situation quickly snowballs past the point of no return. Lumet doesn't attack the plot with kid gloves as he ventures to get inside Andy and Hank's skin, exploring their enormous frustration and hazardous self-medication with alcohol, drugs, and elaborate fabrications.
There's not a single dramatic beat missing from this superlative feature film. Lumet covers all of his tracks exceptionally, shoving these tattered lives up tight to the audience for inspection, fearless in dramatizing their suicidal appetites and desperation for monetary salvation. At first, opening the film with the robbery feels like such a mistake, taking the suspense of the story right out of play at the starting line. Yet, "Devil" has bigger fish to fry with Andy's failing marriage (his frequently nude wife played by Marisa Tomei), his deteriorating work situation, and his bitter attitude toward his birth order. Hank has his ocean of troubles as well, depicted in his nail-biting scenes where the character purges his anxiety in progressively troublesome ways.
It's needless to even isolate the vitality of the performances. Both Hoffman (as a sleazy manipulator) and Hawke (the unkempt baby of the family) are faultless here, playing to their strengths under Lumet's scrupulous watch. It's comforting to observe that "Devil" is an actor's picture, stepping over rusty plot machinations to focus on intricate reactions and ornate processions of guilt. Nearly every scene reveals a jewel of interpretation that pushes "Devil" into spellbinding new areas of crisis. Finney is equally as superior, but his finest flashes of rage are conserved for the final frames.
"Devil" is electric with fury and fuming displays of bad judgment, and it takes the viewer on an unforgettable ride; every new turn drags the characters hopelessly deeper into an unfathomable situation milked to perfection by Lumet and his finely-tuned ear for tragedy. "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" is a blistering piece of moral-smashing cinema that's more effective at serving up toe-curling depictions of malevolence than any horror film Hollywood could possibly deliver.
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