Be-‘Devil’-ed by high expectations, Lumet’s latest falls short

When I say that Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead — the 44th American film privileged to list Mr. Sidney Lumet as director — left me disappointed, please try to understand.

This is not an easy review to write.

First, let’s get something straight: Sidney Lumet doesn’t have anything to prove to anyone. Not to me, not to you, not to the Academy, not anyone. He’s done it, and then some. His
legend, his legacy, his towering contribution to the medium — these are ironclad and indisputable. Shoot, he’s had nothing to worry about in that department for three-plus decades, at the very least. It’s perfectly defensible, even, to suggest that Lumet’s place was more or less set a solid half-century ago, when he debuted — yes,
— with the electric Henry Fonda classic 12 Angry Men, which remains as taut and absorbing today as ever. Add to that the devastating trio of Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and Network (with The Verdict coming off the bench, perhaps?), and you’ve got a top four that’ll stand up ably to that of just about any living director. That he somehow isn’t nearly as celebrated as Scorsese, Coppola, and Friedkin — indeed, that his name isn’t repeated often enough to have naturally stamped out any hope of mispronunciation by now (it’s “Luh-meht,” as it turns out, not
“Loo-may”) — is nothing short of absurd.

But then, I suppose everyone’s got to have a favorite director. It just isn’t every day that I get to review a new film by mine.

Like many a picture before it, Devil is one of those tales whose telling is best, I’ll wager, when the viewer knows least. To that end, I’ll try to remain as diplomatically vague as is practical. (Not that I’m under any particular illusions here; the trailer alone makes short work of any such discretion. Still, though. There’s always a chance.) Philip Seymour Hoffman is Andy Hanson, a bluff and blustery real-estate accountant whose run of luck appears to have finally caught up with him. Younger brother Hank (Ethan Hawke),
meanwhile, never had much of it to begin with. Sensing a common desperation, ever-resourceful Andy entices his rather shiftless counterpart to take part in an ostensibly simple-enough scheme-slash-solution, an intended “victimless crime” that, in practice, goes rotten at the hub and rips through no less than eight lives, culminating in the abject destruction of the Hanson family. Whoops.

The film’s overwhelming strength, little surprise, is to be found in its performances. Lumet, long credited with an ability to draw the very best from his actors (17 different actors have been nominated for Oscars in Lumet-directed films), hasn’t lost a step. Which is to say: His cast, for the most part, doesn’t miss one, either. Hoffman, naturally, is a whirlwind: Stone-still one moment, exploding the next, he manages to inject truth and pathos into a character that, let’s face it, is practically Iago. Hawke, haggard and browbeaten, is a believable mess; some might cry over-the-top at points (for Hoffman, too), but those moments are rather brave and appropriately extreme. Desperate people ain’t graceful. Marisa Tomei, given a bit less to do (and much less to wear), is nonetheless spotless as Andy’s long-suffering wife-with-a-secret. And Albert Finney = Albert Finney, so there’s that.

Devil’s downfall, incredibly, is partly stylistic. Lumet, master of the tight, restrained, inescapably real thriller, succumbs here to a fractured-timeline-and-garish-editing-motif combo that, frankly, comes off as jarringly distracting and gimmicky. Still, things might’ve been OK if not for a seemingly slapdash, wholly conventional ending that left me entirely unsatisfied. It certainly isn’t a terrible film, but a few fatal flaws, coupled with my own sky-high expectations (fair or no) have laid this one low for me. •

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
Dir. Sidney Lumet; writ. Kelly Masterson; feat. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, Marisa Tomei, Rosemary Harris (R)

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