Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
reviewed by Andrew James
The story starts almost literally with a bang and a jewelry store robbery gone horribly awry. An unknown assailant is seen ransacking a jewelry store and during the heist, the older woman managing the store is shot as well as the burglar. We then see Ethan Hawke scream away in what was supposed to be the getaway car in frustration and anger. This is how the story opens. From there, the plot twists and turns through time and with various characters that explain the details leading up to and the after math of the botched heist.
This film is not a particularly upbeat movie to say the least. The characters are all shady and the scenarios in which they find themselves continue to get darker and darker. Everything mostly revolves around three central characters: two brothers and as the story unfolds, also their father. Neither of the brothers (played by Ethan Hawke and Phillip Seymour Hoffman) have any real redeeming qualities about them. They're both losers who reap what they sew.
Special mention must be made of supporting cast member, Marissa Tomei. Although she has very little screen time (most of which is spent totally nude), her presence is definitely felt and needed. With lots to say but not much dialogue, she gets most of her acting done with facial expressions and body language. Much of her role is spent reacting to other characters and trying to examine them and their situations. Again, a role that could've been explored and probably used a little bit more. Then again, maybe Lumet has realized that her presence is just the right added ingredient and too much may sour the recipe. Either way, she deserves more mention and more recognition. In her mid forties, she's not too hard on the eyes either.
The real breakout here though, is Lumet's way of telling the story. The way the story is structured, in that it moves around in time, is very noticeable, but hardly distracting. It does it in such a way that is not confusing or convoluted. It is very clear where we are in the timeline and who we'll be focussing on and why. Also the transitions, although done in a sort of "herky-jerky" manner, are very obvious and don't leave the audience wondering when in the hell they are. In fact, some of the threads overlap with scenes we've already seen. In this way it gives the audience even more perspective. As an added bonus, these overlapping scenes are usually shown from a different angle and although hard to tell for sure, possibly even re-shot completely to give it just that slightly different feel to from when we saw it the first time. It's a terrific and innovative way of telling a story.
This way of structuring events is extremely effective and works wonders in explaining the characters and their motivations for their actions. Telling this story in a linear fashion would most likely be an extremely boring affair and Lumet seems to realize this and shakes it up. As we watch the characters' plans slowly spiral downward into a worse and worse mess, we find out why they're doing what they're doing and sometimes we know the aftermath of their decision before we know their motivations.
While the film is mostly compelling as hell, there are a couple of spots that drag just a bit. At one point the story arc seems to be put on hold for a bit in favor of a character study and it just doesn't seem to be necessary at all. This detour in the story is short lived however and although a complaint, it's easily overlooked. Aside from a bit of a plot stretch at one point, there are few things to detract from my enjoyment of this picture. I now understand why it received so much buzz coming out of Toronto's Film Fest.
Fine performances, an interesting (albeit depressing) storyline and most importantly an innovative way of telling said story make this one of the better films of the year. Aside from the slight drag in the third quarter of the film, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is compelling and intriguing every step of the way. Each little plot twist and time lapse opens a new revelation in the story that makes the viewer more and more interested in seeing what happens next. Just as the characters seem to get themselves in more and more trouble; taking the audience on a journey in which the story spirals deeper and deeper into inevitable doom.
IMDb profile - full cast and crew
Flixster Profile for Before the Devil Knows You're Dead