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Needing extra cash, two brothers conspire to pull off the perfect, victimless crime. No guns, no violence, no problem. But when an accomplice ignores the rules and crosses the line, his actions trigger a series of events in which no one is left unscathed. Written by
Treads familiar ground but does it with grand, depressing intensity and fantastic style
I am beginning to see a very consistent pattern form in the identity of 2007's films. If 2004 was the year of the biographies and 2005 was the year of the political films, 2007 can be identified as a year featuring a wide plethora of morality tales, films that portray, test, challenge and question human morality and the motives that drive us to do certain things. Although this identification is rather broad, I think that there are a handful of films released this year, such as 3:10 To Yuma, Eastern Promises, American Gangster, No Country for Old Men and others that specifically question and study human morals and the motives that drive us to acts such as violence or treachery. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is a deviously stylish morality tale, and quite a dark, bleak and depressing one at that. And even better is the fact that it comes from one of the greatest classic directorial forces of our time, the legendary Sidney Lumet, who many have said has passed his prime but returns in full force with this viciously rich crime thriller.
It's one of those films whose plots are so thick, that one is very reluctant to go into details. It is a movie that is best enjoyed if entered without any prior knowledge to the events about to unfold, as there are twists and turns. But the thick and richly wrought plot is not at all at the center of this film; the true focus is, as I mentioned, the morality tale; the motives that drive these two men to the actions they do in the film. In a plot structured like a combination between the filmographies of both The Coen Brothers (namely Blood Simple and Fargo) and Quentin Tarantino, we see two men driven under various shady circumstances to pull off a fairly simple crime that goes incredibly, ridiculously wrong, and reciprocates with full force and inevitable tragedy. And to make it all the more interesting, the film is told in a fragmented chronology that keeps back tracking and showing a series of events following a different character every time and always ending up where it left off the last time. Sizzling, sharp, thick and precariously depressing, Kelly Masterson's screenplay is surprisingly poignant and well rounded, in particular because it is a debut screenplay.
But the film has much more going for it than just it's delectably sinister and quite depressing plot. First and foremost, the picture looks and feels outstandingly well. Sidney Lumet has, throughout his career, consistently employed an interesting style of cinematography and lighting: naturalistic and yet stylish at the same time. The film carries with it a distinctive air of style and class, with wonderful natural lighting that just looks really great. Editing is top-notch; combining the sizzling drama-thriller aspect with great long takes that really take their time to portray the action accordingly. And vivid, dynamic camera angles and movements further add to the style. The film is also backed by a fantastically succulent musical score by Carter Burwell.
The screenplay does its part, and of course Lumet does his part, but at the film's dramatic center are three masterful actors who deliver incredibly good performances. First and foremost, there are the two leads. Leading the pack is Philip Seymour Hoffman, who has always been an excellent actor but has stumbled upon newfound leading-man status after his unnaturally fantastic Oscar-winning performance in Capote. His turn in this film is fascinating: severely flawed, broken, manic. Hoffman has some truly intense scenes in the film that really allow his full dramatic fury to come out, and not just his subtlety and wit. At his side is Ethan Hawke, who has delivered some fantastic performances in many films that are almost always overshadowed by greater, grander actors. Here, he bounces off Hoffman and complements him so incredibly well; in all, the dynamic acting between the two of them is just so utterly fantastic and convincing, the audience very quickly loses itself in the characters and forgets that it's watching actors. And then there's Albert Finney. Such a supple, opulent supporting role like the one he has requires a veteran professional and here Finney delivers his finest performance in many years as the tragically obsessed father to the two brothers who get caught up in the crime. I love how the dynamics between the three of them play out. I love how Hoffman is clearly the dominant brother and shamelessly picks on his younger brother even now that they're middle-aged men; and yet despite this, it is clear how Finney's father favours Hawke's younger, weaker brother. Also on the topic of the cast, the two supporting female characters wives of the brothers also feature fantastic performances from Amy Ryan and Marisa Tomei, whose looks just get better and better as the years go by.
This film isn't revolutionary. These themes and this style have already been explored by the likes of The Coen Brothers, and it's very easy to imagine them directing this film. But for a film that treads familiar ground, it simply excels. Lumet employs his own immense directorial talent and employs his unique and very subtle sense of irony and style to Masterson's brilliantly vivid, intense, and morbidly depressing first-time screenplay. The lead performances are incredibly intense and the film features absolutely fantastic turns from Hoffman, Hawke and Finney; but the truly greatest wonder of the film is that three years after he won a Lifetime Achievement Oscar, much revered as the ultimate sign of retirement in the film business, Sidney Lumet proves that he still has the immense talent to deliver a truly wonderful, resonant, intense piece of cinema reminiscent of his golden years.
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