Before the Devil Knows Your Dead (Lumet, 2007)

A cold, unsettling artificiality washes over Sidney Lumet’s crime drama Before the Devil Knows Your Dead, infecting every aesthetic stage like a freezing dose of cancerous fate. It’s modern day New York City (but not seen through the usual Lumet grit) and The Brothers Hanson (weak deadbeat Ethan Hawk and “strong” accountant Phillip Seymour Hoffman) hatch a plan to rob their own parents small jewelry store for some much needed cash. Both have reasons for the descent into crime (drugs, child support, a future, you get the point), and it’s no surprise when things go badly. After the botched robbery turns into a homicide, tensions begin to swirl, churning under the surface with a sense of anguish that compliments Lumet’s closing walls and stifling psychological spaces. Told in a kind of toned down Tarantino chronology, Before the Devil Knows Your Dead jumps through time in terms of character instead of plot, showing the haunting guilt and building desperation felt as the caper’s aftermath evolves into a devastatingly brutal finale. Lumet, with his sleek blue hues and modern interiors, and editor Tom Swartwout and his fractured sense of time and image, use changing points of view to lay down the biting law of this particular neo-noir world. Affairs, mistrust, egotism, and finally madness overwhelm Lumet’s fateful characters, each seemingly set on a track toward devastation and deterioration. But it’s this very approach, one obsessed with stylized storytelling, which ends up slightly undermining the wonderful all round performances (Albert Finney and Hoffman are especially dynamic). At times, Lumet appears willing to throw subtlety out the window for a smart kick to the teeth, reveling in the pain and suffering a bit too gratuitously, sometimes at the expense of character and pacing. Before the Devil Knows Your Dead might be Lumet’s comeback film, but it doesn’t belong in the canon of his great work. No, it’s just a well made, well performed morality play with an axe to grind and plenty of lives to destroy along the way.

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