Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is as good of a film as Sidney Lumet has ever made and that is really saying something considering he’s been at it for over half-a-century. The 83-year old master has created a new American classic that ranks with American Gangster, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and No Country For Old Men as the best American films of the year. This is one hell of a crime thriller and perhaps the most original one I’ve ever seen. Surprisingly, there’s not one aspect of this film that can be described as conventional. The performances are spot-on and the script is as deep and as layered as a wedding cake. In a word, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is perfect.
The script, an auspicious debut by Kelly Masterson, is nothing short of brilliant. In his review, Roger Ebert writes “You deserve to walk into this one cold.” He’s right, so I’ll do my best to keep my plot summary to a minimum. Basically, Andy (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and his brother Hank (Ethan Hawke), who are both desperate for money, in cahoots with each other plan to knock over a jewelry store owned by their own parents. As Hank is about to bring that plan to fruition, things go horribly, horribly wrong.
Lumet spins quite a yarn with his unique approach to his storytelling. I knew I was watching an instant classic when I realized how much the build up was going to pay off. The robbery is the centerpiece of the film and Lumet explores how each character arrived to this situation one by one. But that’s only half of it. There’s much more that happens in the final act, which I won’t even touch upon because it so good it’s got to be seen to be believed. Full character development works its way perfectly into Lumet’s storytelling scheme and the performances by Hoffman, Hawke, Marisa Tomei as Andy’s wife, and Albert Finney as the brothers’ father couldn’t be better. Lumet delves into the very core of the desperation felt by Andy and Hank and he sends a clear message that you never really know what people are capable of when they are at the end of their rope.
I was truly mesmerized at how well-written the film was. Writer Masterson has hit a home run here and she deserves the Oscar for best original screenplay. The dialogue is fresh and intelligent and the movie itself is endlessly entertaining and compelling. It keeps you on your toes as you’re eagerly awaiting to see how each character works their way back into the calamity the film begins with and how things will work out in the end. As I mentioned before, the film is certainly not without a sensational payoff. I love this movie and it is truly one of the very best of the year. If this is indeed the last film for Lumet, he has finished his career on a high note.