After selling out two shows at the Asheville Film Festival, octogenarian Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead comes to town for a regular run. Those who missed it at the festival now have the chance to see what all the fuss was about—and whether or not this film actually merited it. While there’s little denying that some of the kudos being showered on the movie are the result of seeing a new film by the 83-year-old Lumet, whose filmography includes a number of iconic examples of American cinema (Murder on the Orient Express (1974), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Network (1976)), I don’t think anyone has given Devil a free pass. While it may not be quite as good as some have claimed, but I do believe it succeeds on its own, and not on Lumet’s reputation.
Like many filmmakers currently in their twilight years, Lumet came to the movies via TV drama, something that serves them well when faced with small budgets and tight shooting schedules. They already know how to make something with very little. In Lumet’s case, this works well, since—Murder on the Orient Express to one side—he was never the most stylish of filmmakers (see the disaster that is The Wiz (1978)). I recently heard a filmmaker describe Lumet’s style as “inelegant,” and that’s a pretty fair assessment. He’s workmanlike and shoots with a hard edge that calls more for urgency than style—something that perfectly suits the unadorned crime thriller at hand, even though calling Devil a crime thriller does it a bit of a disservice.
Lumet and newcomer screenwriter Kelly Masterson are obviously out for something more. This is apparent from the very onset, since the crime itself—the botched robbery of a jewelry store in a strip mall—takes place in the film’s first 10 minutes. It’s not simply the old TV gambit of offering a dynamic scene to grab the viewer’s attention before the channel can be changed either, since the film actually opens on a sex scene with Philip Seymour Hoffman (that might make anyone change the channel). Nor is it simply a case of going for a Tarantino-esque fragmented narrative. The film starts with the culmination of the robbery plan because the family dynamic behind it all is what’s at the heart of the film. This turns out to be no random heist, but the carefully calculated plan of two brothers—played by Hoffman and Ethan Hawke—to rob their parents’ store.
The film moves around in its time frame, not as a gimmick, but to make specific points as a character study. In so doing, it presents us with something greater and more interesting than the usual crime thriller. Certainly the leads are more human and believable than the cardboard characters usually populating such films, but the aftermath of the crime, the familial relations, the tragic consequences all play together to create a darkly realistic vision of extraordinary power. Saying more about the film’s plot would do it a huge disservice. See the film for yourself and appreciate its narrative complexities and no-nonsense drive. Rated R for a scene of strong graphic sexuality, nudity, violence, drug use and language.