To state it in the bluntest terms, Sidney Lumet's "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" is one of the great American films of the past decade, and the crowning masterpiece of Lumet's long career, which spans a stunning 59 years since his first TV dramas for "Studio One" and 50 years since his first feature, "12 Angry Men."
One measure of Lumet's latest achievement is to consider it as a concentrated version of the best tendencies in his films. This movie, at its core, is a story of two brothers, Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke), who stage a jewelry store robbery, only to botch the execution.
But "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" duly unfolds and expands into a family tragedy, a thriller, a social drama, and a study of the fine line between good and evil in American life. Thus, there are echoes throughout of "The Anderson Tapes," "Dog Day Afternoon," "Long Day's Journey Into Night," "Prince of the City," and perhaps Lumet's most overlooked dramas, "The Hill" and "The Offence."
"Devil" detonates when you least expect it – first, sexually (the astonishing opening shot in Andy's bedroom is a kind of nuclear blast in the eyes and ears of the audience), and then as a genre piece that appears to be paying homage to Quentin Tarantino's affection for sequences that wind back the clock.
But in the elegantly constructed screenplay by playwright Kelly Masterson – her first, take note – any such genre or filmic connections are blasted away in a hailstorm of familial backfirings and fusillades. As the full measure of the brothers' awful choices blossoms like a poisonous flower, the narrative takes in their unsuspecting father, Charles (Albert Finney), and Andy's morally shady wife, Gina (Marisa Tomei), just as it does the emotionally weak Hank's teetering private life (as well as Andy's own). By the time Lumet (who contributed hugely to the script, but declined credit) and Masterson have finished spinning a veritably Shakespearean tale of woe, the private worlds have connected with a larger social context – a hallmark of Lumet's best movies.
What's fundamentally different this time for Lumet, and is certain to throw off viewers who may think they have a bead on the director's work, is how the events that inevitably wind into a tight coil of death and recrimination are presented in a fractured, almost Cubist fashion. Information is denied the viewer in an early scene, and once it's revealed later, the context has shifted, making matters all the more sweaty, unnerving, and potentially explosive. For a director raised on television and stage drama, in which extended scenes form the basis for a dramatic structure, such a splintering of scenes makes for enthralling cinema, indefatigably modern in every respect.
Given that Lumet has regularly drawn out the best in the actors he's directed (think Al Pacino in "Dog Day Afternoon," Sean Connery in "The Offence," or Treat Williams in "Prince of the City" to mention only three), it may not surprise that he's assembled a great cast at the top of their game.
But this may understate things: These actors, both in their ensemble moments and many individual ones, tap into emotional resources they've rarely if ever tapped into before. Yes, this includes Hoffman – whose ferocity and vulnerability are a kind of beautiful terror to behold – and Finney, who builds a role that rises to astonishing levels of sadness. When actors of this magnitude reach beyond even their already impressive range – and a director who seems to have done it all taps into entirely fresh viewpoints – it marks a moment of celebration.
Rated R for a scene of strong graphic sexuality, nudity, violence, drug use, and language.