It was unfortunate for Sidney Lumet that his first feature, now fifty years gone, was essentially perfect. I don't care what you watch movies for, you'll have something to latch onto in 12 Angry Men. A compelling script? Check. A subtle and layered visual motif? Certainly. Solid technical craftsmanship? Yes. Compelling moral themes. Dear lord, yes. Great acting? Only the career highlights of Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb.

The problem is that every film he ever made after that was never going to be 12 Angry Men. He has made good films and great films since then (The Pawnbroker is a particular favorite of mine), but it's pretty hard to argue that he didn't peak in his first trip out of the gate.

I bring this up because Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is quite obviously a good movie, and it is also not a masterpiece, and to this reviewer at least, "not a masterpiece" makes it a disappointment. This is perhaps the bigotry of high expectations. I mean, I liked the movie, a lot, but by no means did I LOVE it, and I really had hopes that I would. I don't know why I'm going on about this. I'm supposed to pass down judgments with godlike objectivity, not wallow about in a solipsistic funk, but I am but a mere human. And so, evidently, is Sidney Lumet.

The film opens "big," as they say: a sex scene with two marquee actors. Yes sir, it takes less than five seconds before we're treated to Philip Seymour Hoffman's jiggling ass and Marisa Tomei's jiggling boobs in what is, given the fame level involved, a reasonably convincing bout of simulated doggy-style intercourse. I'll give it this much: it grabs your attention. More importantly, it sets the tone for the film, in a sneaky and elliptical way: it's a film about the layers that prevent intimacy between people, and the stripping away of those layers to leave the characters metaphorically naked to the audience, if not to each other. So I guess I mean to say that the sex is symbolic, which is something sex scenes typically are not. The conversation between Hoffman's Andy and Tomei's Gina that follows is one of the last times in the film that two people communicate honestly about emotion, and that only ratchets the symbolism up.

The second scene takes place, as a title card informs us, on "the day of the robbery," and it's a robbery that goes completely wrong, and with that I am done talking about the plot. Because it is one of the chief pleasures of Before the Devil Knows You're Dead to watch that plot unfold in tiny pieces that are revealed erratically and almost subliminally. That's the other really attention-getting aspect of the film, after the sex scene: it's structured as series of what we might call layered flashbacks - the story advances for a little while, centered around one character, then jumps back a bit to focus on a different character, goes beyond the initial flashback point, and jumps back to a third character, and so on and so forth. First-time screenwriter Kelly Masterson should be given credit for this much: the pieces of narrative are not spelled out for us, and the film relies a great deal on mostly successful implication. It rewards careful attention and thought.

For all that, I'm not really sure that the story requires that kind of fragmentary storytelling. Superficially, the film resembles Reservoir Dogs: a mosaic narrative about the tragic aftermath of a failed heist. But that film took as its theme the ideas of confusion and the unreliability of point-of-view. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is nothing like that - true, there is no small attention paid to the subject of lies and hiding the truth from other people, but not from the audience. The primary theme is about interpersonal relationships, and I am firmly unpersuaded that there is anything about the fragmentary narrative that furthers that theme, or the story. It's clever, and it requires a clever viewer, but it doesn't mean anything that I can tell, and that reduces it to the level of sheer gimmickry. No doubt gimmicks can be fun, but that doesn't keep this one from also being a bit shallow.

Whatever problems I have with the script, I'd be a damn liar if I denied that it gives a crackerjack cast some fine characters and dialogue to tussle with, and chief among these is Hoffman, in a role of tremendous power and violence. The actor is not often given a chance to tower over a film like he does here; I might be tempted to call it the strongest performance of his career, which is a different thing from calling it his best. Standing in total opposition is Ethan Hawke as Andy's brother Hank; a weak and indecisive character who feels tiny and clammy next to Hoffman's largeness. Hawke also gives one the best performances in his career, although this is much less of a statement to make. In opposition to both of these actors is Albert Finney as their father Charles, and it is this character who represents the moral center of the film; Finney strikes a position between his two co-stars incorporating physical shakiness with mental roughness, and while it is not one of his best-ever performances, he is still extremely good. The last member of the above-the-title case, Tomei has almost nothing to work with, and there's just not that much to say about that. She does her damnedest to project a force of personality that the character altogether lacks, and she's as successful as she could have been.

But make no mistake, this is a sausage-fest, much concerned with men and their hang-ups about masculinity, and while I wouldn't say that it's objectively pro-male whatsoever, it presents a world in which women simply don't register. In that respect, it is comfortably within the company of Lumet's work. That's hardly the only reason it's a recognisable Lumet film, of course; the director's somewhat anonymous but eminiently typical fingerprints are all over the film's look. I would contend that Lumet's chief skill as a director (out of many, and I set aside his supernatural facility with actors) is the way he arranges compositions so that they don't seem like compositions at all - it looks like the camera has just been slapped up in front of the action, until one character shifts a little bit or the shot moves and we suddenly realise how precisely arranged the framing has been all along. There's plenty of that in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead: the example that leaps to mind is a fairly typical wide shot of a kitchen that turns into a referendum on Andy's treatment of Gina when she steps towards him and disappears behind a wall, effectively winked out of existence because of his treatment of her. There's also a neat trick that Lumet gets to use thanks to the overlapping flashbacks. Many scenes are replayed, and rather than go the traditional route of simply reusing the extant scene, the director shoots the action from a new angle emphasising the change in point-of-view. Much like the story structure, it's more "cool" than "informative," but it's refreshing how little attention gets called to it.

On top of everything else going on, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is the most explicitly tragic film I've seen in quite a while, to the point where it shades uncomfortably into melodrama; but this is a brutal movie. I can't even begin to hint at why without jumping feet first into spoiler territory, but consider that my word of caution. Awful, horrible things happen without cease, particularly in the second half, and there's not much in the way of catharsis or redemption at the end. And by "not much" I do mean "none whatsoever." It fits, and the film would be dishonest without it, but this is hands down the most depressing film I've seen all year.


Not that I want to get into pettiness and infighting, but I feel the need to address all my fellow male critics out there: see, it is possible to review this whole entire film without ever once mentioning how hot Marisa Tomei's naked body is, and how much you love that she is naked for so much of the film. I mean, I went over 1200 words without ever going there! Just a little something to keep in mind next time.