Monday, April 28, 2008

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Sidney Lumet has been an acclaimed director for as long as I can remember. His films Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, Verdict, etc have won him a legion of followers even though he hasn't had a good one since 1989's Family Business. So maybe the critics missed him so much that his most recent effort Before the Devil Know's You're Dead became a much beloved darling of the film world. Truth be told, I've always found Lumet's work to be overrated. The stories are mostly character pieces long on "acting" and short on plot. With the exception of Deathtrap, I wouldn't classify any of films as a masterpiece. So it would seem fitting this his new film is much the same as his prior "classics" from the 70's told from a slightly different narrative.

BTDKYD is the story of two brothers Andy (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke) who plan a heist on their parents' jewelry store. Both need the money for different reasons and figure since the store is insured that no one with get hurt from this transgression. Complicating both Andy and Hank's life is Andy's wife (Marisa Tomei) whom is having an affair with Hank. That's enough of the plot since you are gonna want some surprises in this film... in fact you need them because the story is pretty straight forward.

One thing that sets this film apart from Lumet's other films is the fractured narrative style he uses here. The heist and it's aftermath are told out of order and from different points of view. It shifts from Hank to Andy to their father (Albert Finney) and back through again. Unfortunately, it feels more like a gimmick than necessary as in something like Memento. It feels concocted to add a bit more punch to a story we've seen before.

What elevates this film has nothing to do with the plot or the direction... it is in the performances. Just as Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico would have been nothing without Pacino, BTDKYD would've have been the same without Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman shines yet again here as the brother who is leading a far more complex life than you initially might think. The journey his character takes should have nabbed him a best actor nomination at the Oscars. (He was rewarded with a nod for Charlie Wilson's War) His work here is far superior than Capote for which he won Best Actor. Finney is also strong here albeit with less of a part to work with... he plays a bit against type here as the flawed father to nice results. Hawke and Tomei (mostly nude, not that I am complaining) are more than adequate in their roles.

Lumet keeps the shots simple to illustrate the characters with the world around them. It's less about the closeups and more about framing each shot like you are watching a play. This simplicity has always been the best things about Lumet films. So while you are gonna get a lot of twists and turns, you will get good actors getting a chance to shine. (excluding Vin Diesel's awful performance in 2006's Find Me Guilty) Not a great film here, but a must watch for Hoffman fans.


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