Before the Devil Knows There’s Too Much Hype Surrounding Your Movie
December 31, 2007
After months of reading about Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, I finally went to see it. Before I begin, I should say that Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is probably the best title for a movie since Things to do in Denver When You’re Dead, and ranks just behind Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid on the list of greatest movie titles of all time. But the main reason I was so excited to see Devil was that it had some of the best reviews in recent memory. By that I mean it’s reviews were some of the more entertaining pieces of film criticism I’d read in a long time. A.O. Scott wrote in The Times that, “Mr. Lumet takes what might have been a claustrophobic genre exercise and gives it both moral weight and social insight,” (link) and Roger Ebert started his review by saying, “Sidney Lumet‘s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” is such a superb crime melodrama that I almost want to leave it at that. To just stop writing right now and advise you to go out and see it as soon as you can. I so much want to avoid revealing plot points that I don’t even want to risk my usual strategy of oblique hints. You deserve to walk into this one cold.” Ebert even named Devil the 3rd best movie of this year, the best year for movies in recent memory. And though I can’t match the eloquent prose of Ebert or Scott, I will try to offer a few comments on the film.
Almost every reviewer considers the movie a (re)tour de force for the director. Once upon a time, Sidney Lumet made 12 Angry Men, Network, and one of the most influential crime films of all time, Dog Day Afternoon. A few years ago, he won a lifetime achievement oscar. Everyone agrees how shocking it is that such a prolific director, one so far removed from his prime, made a movie as deliciously, yes, even devilishly, great as Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.
I’m just not sure that Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is a great movie, but ultimately that will come down to how you view the movie’s acting. The frequently topless Marissa Tomei gives one of the best performances of her career as PSH’s wife, literally and figuratively bearing all in scene after scene. Also, after this movie, I’m willing to say that Ethan Hawke is one of the best actors of his generation. But I’m not sure what to make of PSH’s performance as Andy. As in Charlie Wilson’s War, PSH is playing against every other performance he’s ever given. With every move, PSH seems to be referencing a quirk he brought to a different character. He cycles through different impressions of Andy without ever settling on a specific portrayal. The problem may be that Philip Seymour Hoffman has just set the bar too high. The acting in the movie is very showy, always on the cusp of overacting. Whether or not you feel the emotional intensity is deserved will determine what you feel about the movie.
One of the movie’s most interesting elements was its narrative point of view. The movie jumps from character to character, moving forward and backward in time, revealing it’s events bit by bit. Every time the movie is about to jump, the next scene flashes in front of you before the camera settles in that new world. It’s a bit like Easy Rider, only its done much more infrequently. At a time when the Coen brothers tell a post-modern crime story while arguing for linear storytelling in No Country for Old Men, Lumet, the octogenarian director, tells an old-fashioned crime story while leaving aside continuity. The possibilities of storytelling are endless. What matters is matching the right device with the right story. To their credit, both directors take full advantage of their film’s mode.
Stanley Kubrick once said that, in truth, every scene has been done before. What’s important is to do it as best as you possibly can. Before the Devil, for all its attempts at inventiveness, has scenes we’ve watched many times before. At times, everything clicks and the moment is as fresh as it ever was; at others, the scene is slightly predictable. There are some really interesting moments and interpretations that I won’t mention because they’re so plot dependent. There are a lot of good things to say about this movie. Ultimately, however, whether or not you think it’s a great film comes down to what you think of the acting.