Why?: I’m a huge Philip Seymour Hoffman fan. I bought it without seeing it from the $5 bin at the movie rental store I worked at.
Non-Buyer’s Response: This might be the ultimate “I can’t believe you bought this” one. “Hmm. A sobering, somber PSH movie about matricidal robbery that I’ve never seen? Sure. I’ll buy it.”
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is about brothers Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke) who organize the robbery of their parents’ jewelry store. The job doesn’t go well, triggering a series of events that sends them, their father (Albert Finney) and Andy’s wife Gina (Marisa Tomei) into turmoil. This dark, gritty crime drama has an all-star cast with an A-List director and a gripping premise. And while I respect the work that came together, the performances, the story…I did not enjoy this movie.
Frankly, it boiled down to one point over and over again: the timeline.
Director Sidney Lumet and writer Kelly Masterson made some choices with the flow of time in this film that had me aching and impatient. We continually flash back or forward to see each character’s arch in the days leading up to or after the robbery, playing on the same moments several times. We actually see the robbery before we see the characters decide to take the robbery on, which made me itch as we watched the brothers discuss their options and hum and haw, all the while I’ve known for 15 minutes that they go through with it. I have some pretty firm beliefs when it comes to flashbacks and playing with timeline in a feature and in general, I hate it. This was, unfortunately, no exception.
However, applause all around for the breathtaking cast. PSH’s manipulative, bullying manner over his brother contrasted against his absolute submission to his wife was nothing short of mesmerizing. But, is a great performance enough for me to keep a film that made me bounce my knee impatiently for 2 hours as we flipped and flopped in time? No. It’s not. No matter how perfect the scenes were when Andy went to his drug dealer’s apartment, or the almost-laugh-out-loud-in-disbelief moment when Gina asked Andy for cab money as she left him, I will never watch this movie again. I’m sorry, Philip Seymour Hoffman. It’s a TOSS this time.
I too have a very strict code when it comes to flashback/flash-forward scenes. I’ll just say Lost isn’t my favourite show. But the flashbacks and flash-forwards in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (BTDKYD), were great. They are exactly what flashbacks are perfect for: Illuminating those little cracks in human perception. They can show us how numerous people see the same thing, and that’s how it works in BTDKYD. It’s very much a flashback style cribbed from Rashomon. And I liked that.
The problem I had with this movie was the pacing. It was all kinds of wrong, which is almost to expect given the toying Sydney Lumet did with the chronology. Yet Pulp Fiction doesn’t have pacing issues. Memento, aka the movie that is only flashbacks, doesn’t have pacing issues. It’s doable, is what I’m saying.
Sydney Lumet was undoubtedly a great director, and this flick proved that, even at 83 years old, he still had a little bit of mustard on his fastball. The actors in his charge shine. Ethan Hawke is particularly bright, almost by way of how well he holds his own in scenes with PSH. Hoffman is such a scenery-chewer that he blows 99% of everyone he’s in a scene with right out of the frame. The guy played a freaking valet in The Big Lebowski and still managed to steal every scene he was in opposite peak-form Jeff Bridges. And yet Hawke, who’s character is basically designed to be overpowered and overwhelmed in every scene he shares with Hoffman, holds up. Marisa Tomei is OK (bonus: she doesn’t appear in a scene without showing her boobs until about 35 minutes in), and Albert Finney has straight up never been bad. In a way, the handling of Finney’s father character is why I think that while Lumet could still throw a fastball, he’d lost plenty of velocity over the years. Maybe the aging ace leaned a bit too heavily on his curveball – in the form of the Rashomon-esque timeline and obsessive portrayal of the Hawk/Hoffman fraternal bond – for his own sake.
Albert Finney’s Charles Hanson is the real protagonist of this movie. In about 20 minutes of screen-time, the skeleton of a really great movie about the father of two sons who rob the family jewelry store becomes visible. Without spoiling the ending, Charles’ arc is the heroic journey, and Lumet failed to fix this critical flaw in (I assume) Masterson’s script. This isn’t a movie about two brothers. It’s a movie about a father. But Lumet doesn’t throw 98 MPH anymore. So we got the curveball that was Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. TOSS IT.