It’s been a while since director Sidney Lumet turned in a film as good as Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, a twisty thriller that seemed to be born out of the pre-9/11 film era, when movies about characters grounding out were all the rage. Once the towers went down, though, things seemed to change. Indulgent movies about lowlifes suffering through yet another indignity went the way of Tarantino and a more sober crowd came in. But Lumet never got the memo, and he’s back with a vengeance with a film noir that feels more timely than ever.
The first moments of the film show you that you are about to be toyed with in terms of time and place. You’re seeing a moment towards the end first, and then you backtrack through the story to find out how the characters got to the point where they take such dramatic steps in the wrong direction.
The film opens with a topless Marisa Tomei being mounted by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Sure, it gets your attention, but it also throws you woefully off track, something you don’t find out until later. Tomei then has another scene with the other star of the film, the brilliant Ethan Hawke. And yes, she’s topless again, showing off a well-preserved body that hasn’t yet lost the battle with gravity. Tomei is sleeping with two men, we find out. Oh, and they’re brothers.
Each tidbit of the film is doled out as if you had one small piece of bread to dole out among a hoard of hungry pigeons. Each piece is gobbled up as the film unfolds. It isn’t even the suspense of it, particularly, that makes it so good – though Lumet surely knows his way around the suspense department, having made movies like 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Verdict.
What makes it great is the collaboration between the three actors, particularly the two actors, Hoffman and Hawke. The third is Albert Finney, who plays, naturally, the archetypical patriarch of this very dysfunctional family. Finney is appropriately crazy and, in one scene, truly frightening.
But this movie is, more than anything else, a showcase for Hoffman and Hawke who hit it out of the park. Sometimes that happens. The last time it happened this year was when 3:10 to Yuma united Christian Bale with Russell Crowe. Here again are two actors of equal talent and intellect going toe-to-toe with bravura performances, and it is quite something to behold.
Hawke plays the weaker brother, someone for whom life has never worked out. He is so good at playing this fragile soul pushed beyond his limits. He is the good one but the weak one in all of the ways one must be strong in this corrupt world. Hoffman is the opposite – the one who is supposedly strong and is constantly chastising his younger brother for being unable to do things right. Hoffman, though, is not as strong as he pretends to be and is, in fact, living a life of appearances. His job, his marriage, his home – it’s all illusion in order to gain the respect of his father. And as every child in this position knows, respect is never earned by jobs and things. Never.
If the film has weak links, it’s that for some reason someone made the poor decision to cut the film with these dated jump cuts – it just brings the whole thing down. The film didn’t need it, and it takes us out of it every time it happens. Tomei also does not seem like she knows what she’s doing there. Sure, she’s the skin and the hot number setting off the brothers against each other, and she is the ignored wife. But what else? Either she wasn’t up to the material or else it was poorly written. Either way, it takes away from an otherwise pitch perfect film. It’s safe to say, though, that Lumet can now be called one of the few directors who turned in one of his best films years after he won the Honorary Oscar. Like Eastwood, Lumet can now look forward to a new chapter in his very long and lustrous career.