Connect with us
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
Image: ThinkFilm

Film

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead: Sidney Lumet’s Final Masterpiece

Greed. Betrayal. Revenge. Families can be murder.

15 Years Later: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

Sidney Lumet’s 50-year footprint on American cinema has undoubtedly cemented him as one of the industry’s titans. A filmmaker who consistently traversed every facet of the American Dream, meaningfully addressing the clear division that separates its idealized ethos from the unachievable standard many Americans cannot live up to. Lumet’s characters routinely do not meet that standard, but it is not for their lack of trying, but simply a result of the social truths his films regularly immerse themselves in. For Lumet, American life is defined by the fine line that separates its intrinsic good and evil, a push and pull that America navigates through the personal journeys of his characters and the excellently composed narratives they occupy. 

The echoes of Lumet’s social examination of America reverberate the loudest in his most significant works, from his ground-breaking debut, 12 Angry Men (1957), all the way to his projects during the “New Hollywood Era” like Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Network (1976). His final masterwork is the culmination of this lifelong cinematic exploration of the American Promise, as Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007) takes the traditional trappings of a crime thriller and transforms them into a tragic, haunting, and explosive exploration of familial failings and fraternal envy.

Image: ThinkFilm

The film follows a family whose bond is left forever broken when Andy (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a debt-ridden broker in need of cash, convinces his younger brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) to commit the perfect victimless crime: to rob their parent’s insured jewelry store. The scheme goes horribly wrong when the matriarch is killed and their father, Charles (Albert Finney), takes justice into his own hands, not knowing the culprits are his own children. While on the surface this plot has all the makings of a great pulpy crime thriller, Lumet’s subtle auteurism cleverly underpins the narrative with a commentary on the broken state of the American family, as he touches upon the nature of familial expectations, economic pressures, and hereditary violence in a way that all coalesces to make it utterly clear why this “perfect crime” was doomed to fail. 

These core themes are weaved directly into the narrative structure of the film. Instead of telling this straightforward story chronologically, Lumet and company detail it in a form that interrupts the narrative, flashing back to a point in the past that depicts similar events from a different character’s perspective. The film effortlessly cascades back and forth from each character and timeframe to paint a meticulous tapestry of emotional insights and revelations that imbue this crime drama with a far greater resonance and profundity than the traditional offerings of the genre.

Lumet once unequivocally said that “good style, to me, is unseen style”. While the great Christopher Nolan and Wes Anderson have built their careers on the very concept of a lavish directorial form, Lumet’s composition was antithetical to that very notion. Extravagant and intricate direction was replaced by a penchant for efficient camera movements and framing that bolstered both the direct action and emotional impact of a specific scene. Lumet wholly grounded his direction on the immediate needs of the story and if the audience didn’t realize it was him directing, then he was doing his job well. This was exactly the touch that this film required. Every moment is crafted in a manner that makes it easy for the audience to forget they are watching fiction, as the fall of this established family feels wholly palpable in each expertly blocked scene. The story comes first for Lumet, and it is this approach that makes this film one of the greatest achievements of this century.

Image: ThinkFilm

Lumet’s emphasis on storytelling would be futile if he wasn’t able to draw out captivating and cathartic performances from his cast. There are no prototypical heroes in this film, just men who are trying to escape the stark stresses of life, and Lumet’s casting was crucial in realizing a vivid portrayal of such men. It is the actor’s difficult job to make characters defined by greed, lust, and envy both sympathetic and completely believable. Lumet’s brilliant casting of Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the desperate and volatile Andy lends a profound depth that is defined by sheer explosivity and an astonishing vulnerability. Hoffman is an entrancing terror to witness, especially as his character’s world begins to crumble around him. Ethan Hawke exudes a sympathetic malleability as the weaker-willed brother, who slowly becomes vital to the unraveling of this American family. While Albert Finney wallows in a staggering level of despair as his character comes to terms with the imminent implosion of his household. Finney’s late-career portrayal of Charles is a high point, as his longing eyes seem to be asking why his two sons could not achieve the stability he found in his own life. Lumet is no stranger to capturing the best of what great actors have to offer, as these memorable performances harken back to the greatness of Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon and Peter Finch in Network. In this way, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead acts as a refined greatest hits compilation of his past cinematic triumphs.

Carter Burwell’s score punctuates almost every set piece with a tangible sense of dread, as it harrowingly affirms the tragic trajectory of the narrative. The score latches on to each character, emphasizing their every miscalculated act as a key domino in this family’s assured destruction. Yet, Lumet and Burwell never fail to imbue the music with a sympathetic tinge, making this morally reprehensible ride even more arresting and thought-provoking.

Image: ThinkFilm

As a director who seemingly commented on every aspect of the American Dream, Lumet was still able to confidently discover a new perspective one last time at the age of 82. Its rare to see a director win an honorary academy award and then go on to make one of his most defining works just two years later. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead serves as a haunting, tragic, and enrapturing final feature that few directors can hope to accomplish in the prime of their careers. It is undoubtedly one of the greatest “final films” ever made, rivalling even Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999). While Lumet would be reluctant to call himself an auteur, his final masterwork is a definitive showcase for an artist who continually strived to find beauty in the flaws of the nation he called home.

  • Prabhjot Bains


Written By

Prabhjot Bains is a Toronto-based film writer and critic who has structured his love of the medium around three indisputable truths- the 1970s were the best decade for American cinema, Tom Cruise is the greatest sprinter of all time, and you better not talk about fight club. His first and only love will be cinema and he will jump at the chance to argue why his movie opinion is much better than yours. His film interests are diverse, as his love of Hollywood is only matched by his affinity for international cinema. You can reach Prabhjot on Instagram @prabhjotbains96.

Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Facebook

Trending

Greatest Canadian Movies Greatest Canadian Movies

Made in Canada: The 80 Greatest Canadian Movies of All Time

Film

Queer As Folk 1999 retrospective Queer As Folk 1999 retrospective

Queer As Folk – A Cultural Milestone

TV

Stranger Things Season 4, Chapter 4 "Dear Billy" Review Stranger Things Season 4, Chapter 4 "Dear Billy" Review

Stranger Things Hits a Terrifying Home Run with “Chapter 4: Dear Billy”

TV

John Carpenter's The Thing 1984 movie retrospective John Carpenter's The Thing 1984 movie retrospective

Ambiguity Makes for Better Horror in 1982’s The Thing

Film

The Witch: Part 2. The Other One The Witch: Part 2. The Other One

The Witch: Part 2. The Other One is a Disappointing Genre Hybrid

Culture

Web of Make Believe review Web of Make Believe review

Netflix’s The Web of Make Believe Gets Off to a Scary Start 

TV

Stranger Things Season 4, Chapter 6 "The Dive" Stranger Things Season 4, Chapter 6 "The Dive"

Stranger Things Scrapes the Bottom with “Chapter 6: The Dive”

TV

Jurassic World Dominion - Tilt Jurassic World Dominion - Tilt

Jurassic World Dominion Misunderstands the Entire Franchise’s Allure

Film

Stranger Things Catches Its Breath with “Chapter 5: The Nina Project”

TV

Ranking the 10 best Stranger Things characters Ranking the 10 best Stranger Things characters

10 Best Stranger Things Characters

TV

Stranger Things Screeches To a Halt with “Chapter 7: The Massacre at Hawkins Lab”

TV

The Interceptor The Interceptor

Netflix’s The Interceptor is Sunk by Laziness

Culture

The Wilds vs. Yellowjackets: Which is Better? The Wilds vs. Yellowjackets: Which is Better?

The Wilds vs. Yellowjackets— Which is Better?

TV

Rutger Hauer Rutger Hauer

Blade Runner and the Particular Qualities that Noir Fans Can Appreciate

Friday Film Noir

Queer as Folk 2022 Review Queer as Folk 2022 Review

Queer As Folk Perfectly Blends Tradition and Innovation

TV

Irma Vep HBO series review Irma Vep HBO series review

Why You Should Be Watching HBO’s Irma Vep: The Ultimate Muse

TV

Connect