I'm a big fan of nonlinear writing. Seeing a skilled storyteller juggle his plot elements in such a way as to make a story that confounds as it delights, taking the audience through the material in fits and starts, examining different bits and pieces as they go, can be a thing of magic. Not every story lends itself to this kind of structuring, however, there has to be a reason why the author would choose to chop up a straight line and rearrange it. Writer Kelly Masterson and director Sidney Lumet understand this perfectly, so it's not for nothing that their film Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is a vertiginous marvel.
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is the story of two brothers, the successful but cold Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and the overly sensitive screw-up Hank (Ethan Hawke). Both men have hit a rough patch in their lives that has put them in severe financial straits. Andy has a drug problem and is guilty of embezzlement, which is about to be uncovered by an IRS audit of the company he works for. Hank is a divorced dad behind on his child support and losing his grip on his parental rights. Knowing that his little brother is getting desperate enough to do just about anything, Andy proposes a jewelry store robbery that should clear them both a cool $60K. Hank agrees, but what is supposed to be a simple stick-up turns violent, leaving two people dead or wounded.
The fallout from the botched theft not only leaves the brothers broke and unable to fix their problems, but it sends a ripple effect across their entire family. The full extent of what they have done and what it means only becomes clear the more we learn about the boys, and this is where the choice to structure the script in a jumbled fashion comes into play. Masterson and Lumet show us the robbery before we know exactly who is involved and why. With each successive scene, we learn a little more, connections begin to be made. These revelations not only alter our perceptions and how we feel about the characters we are peeking in on, but it has a sort of spiral staircase effect, taking us down into the dark pit of their lives.
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is not overly tricky just for the sake of being tricky. This is not the case of a filmmaker trying to show how clever he is. If it was, Lumet could have made a far more confusing film, but the veteran director of Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon has no intention of leaving his viewers behind. The transitions between plot threads are clearly defined, with helpful explanatory captions to indicate who is coming into focus and when in the story we are being dropped. In fact, if I had one complaint about the movie (and really, I only do have one), it's that Lumet overdoes the transitions at times, using a grating audio/visual effect that looks and sounds like a snippet from an industrial music video. It's unnecessary and kind of cheap in its execution, but it also comprises less than two minutes of screen time, so barely worth getting lathered about.
In all other aspects, Lumet is fully in control. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead has a sleek, gritty style. Cinematographer Ron Fortunato gives the exterior shots a blown out, oversaturated warmth where everything is exposed while shooting the high-rise interiors as sterile, chilled palaces where Andy and Hank and the people in their lives try to hide their dirty secrets. Put together with Carter Burwell's spooky score, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead becomes hypnotic, the filmmakers using all the senses available to them to bring the audience fully into their world.
Of course, all of the technical proficiency would mean very little if Before the Devil Knows You're Dead wasn't also populated by excellent actors, and Lumet's cast is one of the finest ensembles from last year. Philip Seymour Hoffman is at his sinister, shlumpy best playing the bruised little boy who has grown up resentful and angry. His character manages to maintain a perfectly manufactured image, one only his family can dismantle. Thus, whenever he is around his twitchy little brother or his domineering father (Albert Finney), he starts to slip out of the captain's chair. Ethan Hawke creates an amazing portrait of a man falling apart at the seams, while Albert Finney shows tremendous wisdom and depth, portraying a patriarch who is both grieving and angry over the situation he has found himself in.
Also really good is the always criminally underused Marisa Tomei as Andy's wife Gina. Though initially she appears to be in the film only to get naked (though, to be fair, we see a fair amount of both of the male leads and their backsides), as things progress, it becomes clear that she is more aware of what is happening than she lets on. The more Andy tries to shut Gina out, the more she actually sees and the more loyal to him she becomes. In her role, she represents the effects that the evil that men do has on the women in their lives. The irony is that the more the guys lose their composure, the stronger the women have to become.
It's too bad that Before the Devil Knows You're Dead seemingly got lost in the shuffle last year. From beginning to end, I was fully wrapped up in it. From the robbery to the full unveiling of how it came about and into the third act disintegration of the characters and their schemes, Sidney Lumet was able to keep me guessing, giving me answers that made me want to learn the questions, and dragging me along to the inevitable finish. The filmmakers smartly choose to let the finale run as a whole, showing the resolution as the true, inescapable image all of the puzzle pieces were meant to create. The final images are effectively haunting, satisfying for their murky justice.
The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is splendid. The solid widescreen image keeps all of the varied colors and textures intact, ensuring that the right feel of neon and grit comes through for the home viewer. I noticed no spotting, no layer shift, no instances of artifacting or edge enhancement. Really top notch work on display. Since the movie was shot in high-def, it was tailor-made for DVD.
There are two Dolby audio options here, a 5.1 mix and a 2.0 stereo mix, and they had my speakers working overtime. The audio team has created a fully realized multi-dimensional soundscape, with lots of front and back action.
Spanish subtitles and Closed Captioning are available for those who desire them.
The collection of extras follows the standard DVD line. Bonus video elements are the theatrical trailer and a twenty-four minute documentary called "Directed by Sidney Lumet: How the Devil Was Made." Though the piece does occasionally slip into promotional hyperbole, the featurette is largely an intelligent discussion of the development of the picture and how the pieces of the production were prepared. It's built on interviews with Sidney Lumet, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Marisa Tomei, and two of the film's producers, along with clips from the movie and a couple of on-set snippets.
The full-length audio commentary features the director and his two stars, Seymour Hoffman and Hawke. The three of them are together, conversing and reminiscing about the production. In some sense, this can mean there is a lack of focus, but there is also a natural feel to the discussion and allows for a free dialogue.
There are also a handful of trailers that play as the disc loads the main menu.
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is an intense crime thriller that turns the emotional violence of families into real physical violence, a gut-wrenching look at the lengths some people will go to and how they'll hurt others along the way. Using a jewelry heist as a catalyst, the story shows two brothers, played with remarkable truth by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke, who catch themselves in their own web of deceit and tear apart everything trying to get out. Told in a dizzying out-of-sequence style that matches the complexity of the drama, veteran director Sidney Lumet proves he's still got a lot of kicks in him yet. Highly Recommended.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.