Title: Before the devil knows you are dead
Screen format: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Image Entertainment / Capitol / Think Film
Year first released: 36 September, 2007
DVD released: April 15, 2008
Director: Sidney Lumet
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, Marisa Tomei, Rosemary Harris
Sound Formats: English Dolby Digital 5.1 & Stereo
Length: 117 minutes
At 83, legendary filmmaker Sidney Lumet keeps on doing what he does best, taking interesting stories and paring them down to their barest essences, bringing in talented actors and refining their performances to the rawest of emotions. By utilizing all the tricks of film making he has learned over his vast career and employing the best of breed in digital imaging that is available, he proves that old dogs can indeed learn new tricks, and maybe even show the young pups in Hollywood a thing or two.
In Before the Devil knows you are dead, Lumet transforms a script by Kelley Masterson into a modern melodrama, an unavoidable tragedy. Andy (Hoffman) and Hank (Hawke) are aging brothers with deep secrets and for whom life is threatening to run off the rails. Andy is addicted to heroin and has been financing his habit through embezzlement. Hank is a classic runt, disheveled, divorced and unable to pay to give his daughter her due funds let alone additional funds to just be a kid. Andy plots what seems to be an easy score: knocking over a mom and pop jewelry store. The twist is that the mom and pop involved are his and Hank’s parents (Finney and Harris).
Told in a disjointed but mostly follow-able series of flashbacks and flash-forwards, the plan fails miserably, and while Andy and Hank aren’t immediately connected, they struggle with their guilt and the consequences of the robbery, including the unexpected injury of their mother in the struggle. Unknown to Andy, Hank had reservations about the original plan and had brought in outside help, and that help is killed during the botched attempt, and his friends start hammering Hank for restitution as well. As the story chugs towards its inevitably tragic end, Hank and Andy’s secrets are revealed one by one, piling on the misery they must endure.
Devil is by turns both fascinating and disturbing, shining a light into the horrors that can follow evil acts, even when caution is taken to avoid hurt. I personally had a hard time identifying with either brother, and found the whole thing just a bit maudlin and depressing, without realizing at first that the underlying foundation was melodrama and that that ensured that there could only be one conclusion.
What I found most striking was the performances put in by all three of the main principles, Hoffman, Hawk and Tomei. All three showed incredible depth of emotion portrayed different sides of the underlying tension with superb depth and bravery, particularly with the nude scenes, especially the opening of the film which is quite graphic without really being titillating.
Overall I can’t say I enjoyed the film but that really wasn’t the point. It’s not going to be a film anyone really loves, but as a tragedy and melodrama it is without question a success.
Sound Quality: 3/5
I wasn’t expecting to be blown away by the soundtrack of Devil, but it does have a 5.1 mix that does reach back into the rears to fill environmental effects nicely. Bass is however almost nonexistent outside of a few pistol shots. Musically the score is tied directly to the melodramatic pace and is purposefully dreary, though I give credit to composer Carter Burwell for coming up with a few instrumental pieces that help the slower sections not drag on.
Visual Quality: 3/5
In the extras Lumet goes on at length about his love for the digital realm, and as a digital production you will not find any of the pops or scratches that a true film would have had. There is however a bit of grain and the dynamic range limitations of digital cameras is quite blatant, especially in the car scenes as the white range of skies and other exteriors are blown out consistently. This is quite jarring as it doesn’t appear to have been done for cinematic effect but as simply a drawback of the technology used. Most scenes are relatively sharp but the palette of the film borders on monochromatic at many points, tho this does seem like a creative decision over a technical one.
Extra Features: 2.5/5
There are three extras on disk. First is the theatrical trailer. Second is an amazing behind the scenes featurette called “How the devil got made” which is an excellent discourse with Lumet and the cast and production crew about the very different philosophies to film making that were employed. Finally there is a feature length commentary track with Hawke, Lumet and Hoffman, with Hoffman taking charge and acting as an interviewer. Normally I skip these but I was drawn in by the combination of these three people and listened to well over half of it so far and intend to go back and finish it, it’s definitely worthy of a listen if you find the “How the Devil” featurette interesting.
Overall: 3.5/5 (not an average)
Top on the list of things I did enjoy were the honest and chilling performances of Hawke and Hoffman and the very illuminating main featurette. While it’s not a film I’ll go back to again and again but it isn’t one I regret having spent time with either. While this film is unlikely to win the accolades that many others in Lumet’s vast back catalog have achieved, I found Devil to provide insights into the nature of tragedy and evil that I hadn’t considered before.