Who saw this coming? Director Sidney Lumet got his start in television during the early days of the medium, graduating to film with such black-and-white message movies as Twelve Angry Men and Fail-Safe. He hit his stride in the '70s, helming the Paddy Chayefsky political potboiler Network and really making his mark with a series of New York stories: Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, Prince of the City.
Lumet has been consistently active since but hasn't made anything acknowledged as first-tier since 1982, with the Paul Newman legal drama/character study The Verdict. That was 25 years ago and Lumet, at 83, now seemed to be way past making films of that stature.
But then there's Lumet's latest film, his 45th, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, a provocatively titled heist flick/family melodrama starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke as Andy and Hank Hanson, a couple of unstable brothers who seek to solve their financial troubles by planning a robbery of their parents' suburban jewelry store.
It's the perfect crime, Andy reasons — a mom-and-pop shop (har, har) stuck between a Foot Locker and a Claire's in a strip mall. The brothers know what's in the store and how to get to it. They know that on Saturday mornings a near-blind old woman, a friend of their mother's, operates the store alone until noon, with no security. And they know that insurance will cover their parents' losses — "a victimless crime." Andy figures the police will shove the file to the back of the cabinet within a week, and he and Hank will have the funds needed to dig themselves out of their financial holes.
Needless to say, the plan goes awry, with the robbery attempt ending, unsuccessfully, in a bit of unintended violence that sends the family into a multifaceted crisis. After an attention-getting opening scene, the significance of which is revealed later in the film, we're presented with the botched robbery before any explanation of what is happening or why. From there, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead radiates in concentric circles around the robbery.
Bleak, bruising, and gripping, with a subtle, devilish streak of coal-black humor, it's one of the year's very best films. But what's most surprising isn't just that it was made by the aged Lumet — almost certainly the oldest still-working major American director — but how different it is from the filmmaker's most recognized work.
Lumet has always been what we might now call an old-fashioned director, his straightforward stories and unflashy visuals rooted in television-style storytelling and classic Hollywood. But Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, with its intricately diced timeline and shock-editing transitions, seems to be a response to the crime films of younger, hipper directors such as Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, or Christopher Nolan. Here, Lumet is playing their game and perhaps playing it better.
Unlike Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, another punishing heist-gone-wrong flick, the emphasis isn't as focused on the mechanics or the verbal and physical action of the story, the virtuosity of which is more assumed than celebrated. The film hinges on the family dynamics, personal failings, and emotional desperation of the characters.
These traits are lightly but deftly sketched, with lots of background left out. We don't know if Andy's financial problems have provoked his hidden drug use or vice versa. We don't know how Hank, divorced, got himself in so deep, months behind on child support and cruelly called a loser by his adolescent daughter when he's unable to produce $130 for a field trip to see The Lion King. The complicated, resentful family relationships that feed into the plan and its eventual unraveling are revealed gradually, especially as the father, Charlie (played by Albert Finney), moves from the edges to take a more central role.
The heist and fallout plotting is twisty, but unlike so many ostensibly similar modern movies, it never feels like a screenwriting exercise. (This is the first original screenplay from playwright Kelly Masterson.) Bad decisions flow naturally from messy personalities and strained circumstances and lead into worse outcomes with an awful logic. At the same time, by repeating some scenes multiple times from different vantage points, Lumet and his team (particularly editor Tom Swartwout) give the film an effectively detached, almost clinical feel.
The film's oscillating chronology is controlled and purposeful, linking crucial moments to motivational catalysts and confounding scenes to illuminating backstory with the disorderly precision of a crossword puzzle where one correct answer sets up the next.
But Before the Devil Knows You're Dead also plays beautifully shot-to-shot and within each self-contained scene, with elegant establishing shots and confident long takes that slowly reel the viewer in.
Lumet's best films have tended to be male-focused, and so it is here, where the core dynamic is the horribly strained relationships among the Hanson brothers and their disappointed father. Female characters are on the sidelines — as badgerers, victims, or willing but unused accomplices. Marisa Tomei has the most prominent female role as Andy's wife. It's hard to tell if her performance is uneven or if her character is.
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead taps — lightly — into the financial and familial anxiety of a credit-card era in which the old, familiar wish about children doing better than their parents has collapsed, the film becoming something of a generational allegory of adult children living off their parents to its most painful extreme.
Lumet's earliest film successes were topical and talky. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead isn't that. It burrows deeply into itself, taking on an elemental heft closer to Greek tragedy. The film's most memorable bit of dialogue comes from an old jewelry-business acquaintance of the father's, who delivers a bit of bad news with lip-smacking schadenfreude: "The world is an evil place, Charlie. Some of us make money off of that. Others get destroyed."
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is merciless in illustrating the truth of those words but also suggests sympathy for those for whom weakness and desperation lead to evil.
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
Opens Friday, November 16th