Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, Marisa Tomei, Rosemary Harris
Directed by: Sidney Lumet
Lately, I’ve come to the conclusion that when a well respected, older director makes a movie after a long time between pictures (or at least a long time between respectable pictures), critics tend to spot them a grade or two above its level. This is particularly true when the director has either already won an honourary lifetime achievement Oscar or is not expected to be around long enough to make many more movies. So with this is mind, I may have to start taking the high grades these movies get with a grain of salt.
Because without the great reviews for 83-year-old Sidney Lumet‘s 2007 release Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, I never would’ve considered watching it. If I hadn’t bought into the praise heaped at the feet of the old master by people who grew up watching and studying his movies, I could have saved myself one of the least enjoyable trips to the cinema I had all year.
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is a standard-fare, ill-conceived caper-gone-wrong flick, featuring the most aggressively unlikable characters you’ll ever see outside of celeb-reality TV (stop me before I hyphenate again!). The movie features Philip Seymour Hoffman as the unconscionable douchebag Andy and Ethan Hawke as his pathetic half-wit brother Hank, who together plan quite possibly the world’s easiest robbery, and still manage to fuck it up.
It’s not that a movie need feature likable characters to have value, but in the absence of likability, the characters must exhibit some other qualities, such as intelligence, charisma, originality, or competence in order to have some appeal for the viewer, especially for such a character-driven movie. None of the characters exhibit any of these qualities. It’s not just that they’re hateful; they’re also dim-witted, dull, and incompetent.
Instead, it seems like critics found all their appeal in Lumet himself, pleased to see the legend once again directing a heist flick and exploring some of his old themes. Which would be fine if his direction in the movie was anything more than competent, or if anything about the story demanded attention (other than, of course, the much talked about opening scene with Hoffman and Marisa Tomei, which has critics buzzing about how Lumet isn’t afraid to get in your face). The acting is mostly solid, except for Albert Finney‘s exaggerated overacting, but I’m not sure anyone needs to go see a movie to see Philip Seymour Hoffman yet again play a smug prick, or Ethan Hawke as a hapless hangdog.
Especially when the story itself is so pedestrian that Lumet decides to structure the whole thing with multiple character POVs, redoing scenes several times so we can see what was going on with different characters during the scene. It can be an interesting device, especially for caper movies, but only when the characters actions are interesting and the subsequent POVs are revealing. Instead, it generally was just another boring re-telling of an event that was made pretty explicit the first time around, fleshing out some minor detail that wasn’t all that pertinent to begin with.
The result is a 2 hour movie that could’ve been half an hour shorter detailing wretchedly horrible people who can’t handle the world’s simplest heist, brought to by the legendary director of Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Wiz (see people? He is not above reproach!). While not a complete failure, it was certainly not an experience I’m hoping to repeat anytime soon, leaving me to realise that the next time I want to check out something by one of the all-time great directors of the world, I should probably go to the video store to find out why they’re so admired, instead of going to a theatre to see the movie that gets a pass as a result of that admiration.