Youthful crime tragedy from the 83-year old Sidney Lumet
DIR Sidney Lumet
ST Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Marisa Tomei
With its flashback structure, hip cast and familiar heist-gone-wrong subject matter, you could be forgiven for thinking that this crime drama was the work of a new, upcoming director. But astonishingly, Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead is the latest from 83-year-old Sidney Lumet, a half century after his classic 12 Angry Men. It isn’t perfect by a long shot, but what is impressive is its youth, its energy, and its willingness to play games with storytelling by getting its crime done and dusted in the first half hour.
A highlight from last year’s Toronto Film Festival, Lumet’s film plays better as a tragedy than thriller, in the true Shakespearean sense, than a heist thriller. This is the story of a man giving into his weakness, only to find that he isn’t as strong as he thought. And that the way back, well, it just isn’t there any more. It starts as a two-hander, with likeable loser and deadbeat dad Hank (Ethan Hawke) struggling to make his maintenance bills. Big brother Andy (Seymour HoffmanM) throws him a lifeline, but it’s not ideal: if Hank robs their parents’ mom-and-pop jewellery store, Andy will fence the haul and split the proceeds 50-50. It is, Andy assures him, a victimless crime. They’ll use a toy gun, no one will be hurt, and the insurance company will replace everything.
Of course, this isn’t how it plays out. Times have changed since the two boys worked there as kids, there’s a gun on the premises and Hank’s accomplice is shot and killed by the shop assistant who isn’t the usual dozy Doris. So now the brothers are getting worried. The police are involved. The dead man’s gangster family are about to get involved. And the pair of them are so much in trouble anyway – Hank with his ex-wife, Andy with work, where his light fingers are about to be exposed by the auditor – that this extra pressure really isn’t quite what they envisaged. At this point, is it worth adding that Andy’s wife – Marisa Tomei, enjoying the most topless role since Melanie Griffith’s heyday – is having an affair with Hank?
So, clearly, this is another kind of heist movie. It’s not about procedure, or honour among thieves, it’s about hubris, and the trouble a man can find himself in when he plays with fire. Here, Andy’s final meltdown provides the film’s unexpectedly violent payoff. His own comeuppance may be too Biblical for some, but it’s a wry, ironic end to a nuanced, multi-layered morality tale.