“Sidney Lumet, at 83, may be the oldest director with a film at Toronto this year,” Roger Ebert has written, “but his films are always sharp-edged and constructed with a taut urgency, and now he has made a crime film as good, in its own way, as his Dog Day Afternoon, The Verdict, Find Me Guilty and Serpico.
Ethan Hawke, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Sidney Lumet on set of Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.
“Like those films, like all of his crime films, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead shakes off the conventions of genre and becomes a study of character. It uses, as Lumet likes to do, superb actors: Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke as brothers, Albert Finney as their father, Marisa Tomei as Hoffman’s wife, Rosemary Harris as Finney’s wife, and Amy Ryan as Hawke’s ex-wife.
“The brothers both face financial emergencies, and Hoffman concocts a plan to stick up their family’s suburban jewelry store on a Saturday morning, when the staff will be one old lady. His plan: No guns, no muss, no fuss, dad gets reimbursed by insurance, nobody’s a loser, and their problems are over.
“The plan does not quite work out. Kelly Masterson‘s screenplay (her first) uses interlocking flashbacks to see the plan and the problems gradually swelling toward critical mass. And what is so good about the film is the depth of the characters, of the brothers (one nursing old wounds, the other feckless), the father (Finney sounds the depths of the man’s soul) and Tomei (whose marriage is coming apart and she doesn’t know why).
“Lumet started in TV in 1951. His career directing feature films began with the masterpiece 12 Angry Men (1957), and he hasn’t lost one beat in 50 years.”
But Lumet has lost the beat from time to time. The ’90s were not a good period for him — Gloria (’99), Critical Care (’97), Night Falls on Manhattan (’97), Guilty as Sin (’93) and A Stranger Among Us (’92) were all problem films. Q & A — which came out 17 years ago — was the last truly decent Lumet film until Find Me Gulity came along in ’06. And now Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, a better film than Find Me Gulity (which is saying a lot) and Lumet’s best since Prince of the City.