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Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
Savant Blu-ray Review

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
2007 /Color / 1.85:1 / 117 min. / Street Date May 6, 2008 / 35.98 (Blu-ray)
Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, Marisa Tomei, Rosemary Harris, Aleksa Palladino, Michael Shannon, Amy Ryan, Brian F. O'Byrne, Leonardo Cimino
Cinematography (HD) Ron Fortunato
Production Design Christopher Nowak
Art Direction Wing Lee
Film Editor Tom Swarthout
Original Music Carter Burwell
Written by Kelly Masterson
Produced by Michael Cerenzie, William S. GIlmore, Paul Parmar
Directed by Sidney Lumet

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

2007's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead shows director Sidney Lumet still at the height of his powers. It has a great cast but lacks a powerhouse box office name, which is perhaps why it was overlooked last Oscar season. Also, its story of crime and tragedy may have been too downbeat for audiences that prefer the hip No Country for Old Men with its hints of black humor. Image's DVD is an excellent opportunity to catch up with this superior thriller

Synopsis (no spoilers):

To fund his heroin habit, real estate finance manager Andy Hanson (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) has been stealing from his company. An upcoming audit forces him to extreme measures. Andy cons his younger brother Henry (Ethan Hawke) into robbing the little jewelry store owned by their parents Charles and Nanette (Albert Finney & Rosemary Harris). Henry can't keep up alimony payments to his ex-wife Martha (Amy Ryan of Gone Baby Gone) and suffers from low self-esteem, a problem that Andy exploits to coax Henry into pulling off the robbery on his own, on a Saturday when neither Mom nor Dad will be in the store. But Henry chickens out and secretly enlists a tough-guy pal, Bobby Lasorda (Brian F. O'Byrne of Bug). Without being asked, Bobby brings a gun along on the job ...

An engaging ensemble film, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is a genuine neo-noir in that it goes beyond style to engage with the noir concerns of culpability and fate. The resentments and failings between the brothers congeal into a classic trap that begins with a 'simple' crime and ends in almost total ruin.

Siblings Andy and Henry Hanson's shameful adventure is far from glamorous. They're just sympathetic enough to hold our interest, even while making disastrous personal decisions. Andy is already a thief and a casual junkie. His expensive habit makes him impotent, and he compensates with his puzzled wife Gina (Marisa Tomei) with promises of an escape to paradise in Brazil. Sensing that something's up, Gina hates Andy all the more for not leveling with her -- she knows, for instance, that Brazil has no extradition treaty with the United States.

Andy is also enough of an egotist to think that he can manipulate his weak brother Henry, a man who can't face his responsibilities. Henry crumbles when he can't come up with the promised money to send his spoiled nine year-old daughter to see The Lion King on stage. Henry and Gina are keeping an even worse secret from Andy. That these foolish brothers think they can pull off a perfect 'all in the family' crime all but guarantees that they'll end up in the soup.

The disastrously unsuccessful robbery is only the first stop in a grueling chain of personal tragedies. Wracked with guilt, Andy and Henry only add to their problems. Andy still faces an audit that will surely send him to jail; he's avoiding phone calls from work. Henry is soon cornered by Bobby Lasorda's wife Chris and brother in-law Dex (Aleksa Palladino & Michael Shannon), who expect cash in exchange for their silence. Hovering above both boys is their father Charles, a good man traumatized and angered by what's happened (it would be unfair to explain why) to the point that he's smashing police cars because the cops won't investigate the robbery further.

Plaudits are in order for first time screenwriter Kelly Masterson, who arranges his narrative in a staggered series of out-of-sequence bites. The popular Pulp Fiction spawned a rash of movies that splinter time, more often than not to disguise pedestrian narratives by withholding information or creating a 'puzzle' that the viewer must assemble for themselves. The script does fool us a couple of times, as when it initially hides the identity of Henry's hooded accomplice. But Masterson and director Lumet employ the fractured format to stay focused on a particular character through complicated situations. We see a number of scenes twice, from differing points of view. Gina receives and curtails a cell phone call in the middle of a funeral reception. Only later do we see who is calling, when part of the scene replays from a different point of view.

The best thing about Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is that director Lumet doesn't allow the story extremes to get out of hand. This isn't the old noir film Quicksand, in which a purloined $20 bill snowballs into an unlikely manhunt for kidnapping and murder. Andy and Henry sink into trouble in carefully measured steps, so that when people are finally pointing guns at each other, nothing seems silly. In fact, we don't see how it could have turned out any other way. The film balances aberrant character behavior with the necessities of living: when the elderly Charles Hanson pursues his own kin with murder on his mind, he still has to find a parking space.

Sidney Lumet has a fine record with films about crime and personal relationships. His earlier Family Business assembles the unlikely team of Sean Connery, Matthew Broderick and Dustin Hoffman. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead has little comedy and isn't built on star power, but it's a solid entertainment.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays a despicable man that we nevertheless recognize as real, and Ethan Hawke's loser hero reveals a new layer of weakness every time he falls apart. Albert Finney is masterful as a family man in the throes of despair, who must face a greater horror when he discovers exactly what has own son has done. Marisa Tomei begins the movie with a series of (necessary?) nude sex scenes that perhaps point to her contentious position between the two brothers. She has a good scene walking out on Andy, and becoming enraged when he doesn't react.

The estimable Rosemary Harris is only on for a few minutes. Amy Ryan's bitter ex-wife takes pleasure in watching Henry squirm. Aleksa Palladino, Michael Shannon and Bobby Lasorda form another unfortunate family unit that has the misfortune to deal with the Hansons. And the impressive Leonardo Cimino (Moonstruck, Dune) turns a bit part as a fence for stolen jewelry into a key role -- he alone seems to understand the evil that's ripped the Hanson family in half.

Image's Blu-ray disc of Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is a good-looking 1:85 encoding of a film shot on HD. Only a few bright exteriors give this away; the film has a handsome visual surface. A standard-def disc was released on April 15.

The disc is flush with extras. The energetic Sidney Lumet joins with Ethan Hawke and Phillip Seymour Hoffman for a friendly commentary track that gets a tad sparse by the end but still carries more than its share of interesting observations. A lengthy making-of featurette examines the film from all sides and gives a full picture of Lumet's shoot on the New York streets. The highly organized director works out of a plain office, believes in full rehearsals and shoots quickly. He loves HD because it allows him to move that much faster, often finishing his day's work early. The actors clearly adore him, knowing that working on a Lumet film is a special privilege.

The package rounds off with a good trailer, formatted for an even wider 2:35 aspect ratio. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead deserves all the attention it can get; thriller fans shouldn't miss it.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Making-of docu, commentary with Sidney Lumet, Ethan Hawke and Sidney Lumet
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 18, 2008

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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