“As pessimistic as it is — you have to squint hard to find the barest flicker of redemption in its denouement — Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is also curiously exhilarating,” declares N.Y. Times critic A.O Scott. “Some of this comes from the simple thrill of witnessing something, or rather everything, done well. Even the overwrought performances — Albert Finney‘s growls, Ethan Hawke‘s twitches — have integrity and conviction. This is a melodrama, after all, and its lifeblood is in the manic acting, just as surely as it is in the plaintive horns of Carter BurwellÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s score.
“My grandfather, whose background was not so different from Lumet’s, was dismissive of movies that seemed overly dark or despairing. “There wasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t a single decent human being in the whole movie,” he used to complain. He might not have found any in Before the Devil Knows YouÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re Dead, but he would also have recognized the humanism that saves this harsh tale from nihilism. The screen may be full of losers, liars, killers and thieves, but behind the camera is a mensch.”
On the other hand, there’s only one Armond White, the N.Y. Press film critic who sometimes qualifies as the ultimate pain-in-the-ass contrarian. The guy is always feisty and incisive, and brilliant some of the time. But other times he gets down on his knees for films like “the excellent, excellent Munich” and trashes the incontestably intense and deep-drilling Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead.
He pops a cap into the back of the head of Sidney Lumet‘s film because “it’s too proudly depraved,” because “it lacks the seriousness [exemplified by] Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex,” because Lumet and screenwriter Kelly Masterson “continue the corruption of tragedy in the post-Sopranos age [and] fail to attain the lucid, credible emotion of modern tragedy (on view in The Brave One and Reservation Road)…Before the Devil is pathetic, a Hollywood tragedy.”
Read it again and reassemble: Reservation Road, White believes, exemplifies the “lucid, credible emotion of modern tragedy.” Meaning, in other words, that it has the good stuff and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead doesn’t. I lean against a nearby street lamp post to keep from falling over. My mouth is open and my eyes are fixed and glazed.