Sidney Lumet was a master of cinema. His contributions to cinema are forever cemented in the films he directed – from Network, one of the greatest films of all time, to Dog Day Afternoon, a star-making turn for Al Pacino (which really says something considering he starred in TWO Godfather movies before this) and everything from play adaptation (Equus and Long Day’s Journey Into Night) to Agatha Christie mystery (Murder on the Orient Express) to blaxploitation musical (The Wiz) to courtroom drama (The Verdict) and everything in between. His sadly last cinematic contribution was a little crime film called Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, and boy is it a great way for us to say goodbye to a real master. Lumet has created the closest we’ll get in the 21st century to a classic film noir.
I will admit that I have been planning to watch this film for a while now, but the tragic death of Philip Seymour Hoffman pushed me to watch it even more. This film is a moody, dark and utterly beautiful piece of art. The film makes use of the flashback/non-linear storyline that is popular with the crime drama, but unlike many of these, this film does not do it with the aim to confuse and convolute the story – instead it adds to the mystical and dark quality that Lumet strived for. The script is absolute perfection – simple yet complex. Kelly Masterson does really good job at playing on the audience’s emotions and crafting this story.
The editing of this film was probably the best I’ve seen in a crime film. The subtle little pauses and the rapid exchange between scenes all enhance the viewer’s experience of this great film. It was filmed beautifully, and the lingering feeling of uneasiness is a great combination of the camera work, the editing, the directing and the screenplay. A serendipitous exchange of filmmaking in the finest form.
The performances in this film are quite simply phenomenal. Like a classic noir, this film has the four basic stock characters – the evil genius (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the conflicted sidekick (Ethan Hawke), the ever-so-slightly sinister bombshell (Marisa Tomei) and the vengeful nice guy (Albert Finney). What makes this film so successful and different from other noirs is that these four characters have the distinction of all being family – therefore making this film as much Little Caesar as daytime soap opera. The family aspect of this film isn’t ever forgotten in the slightest, and while family does normally serve to comfort, this fact just makes watching this film ever more disturbing. Of course anything with Philip Seymour Hoffman is going to be amazing, but for once he isn’t the most valued player in this film. Ethan Hawke gives by far his greatest performance (let’s not mention the Before trilogy – those films go beyond human comprehension when it comes to filmmaking). His conflicted, scared and innocent performance is the perfect juxtaposition to the devious, cruel and evil performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman. These two have a fantastic dynamic, and the fact that we won’t ever be able to see them bring such a dynamic to our screens again is incredibly sad. But let us celebrate that this partnership does exist in the first place.
I wonder if Lumet would have made another film if he hadn’t died. But even if he didn’t, I would be perfectly content with Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. It isn’t his best film (that distinction will forever belong to Dog Day Afternoon), but it is a damn entertaining film that is both smart and scary, and features a great script, fantastic performances and direction from a true American master who sadly has passed on, but has left us a magnificent legacy, and this film is destined to become to a future classic.