“Phew! That’s a great cast!” is the first thing that runs through your head when Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead kicks off. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke and Albert Finney in a movie directed by Sidney Lumet, the guy behind Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon? Looking forward to this one...
Slowly but steadily, that enthusiasm seeps away. This is by no means a bad film, but it is a self-indulgent one; a movie that gives actors some genuinely great moments (which explains the cast…), but never quite succeeds in stitching those scenes into believable character portraits or a riveting plot. Lumet uses a flashback structure to hop us back and forth in the lives of corrupt accountant Andy (Hoffman), his divorced fuck-up brother Hank (Hawke) and their dad Charles (Finney). Andy’s cooked up a scheme to rob their parents’ jewellery store so that he can repay the money he’s defrauded from his firm and take wife Gina (Tomei) to Brazil. He ropes in Hank, but the scheme goes wrong, leaving blood and disaster in its wake...
The flashbacks feel clunky and half-hearted, an attempt to jazz up a mundane plot. Lumet squeezes a lot out of his actors — Hoffman in particular is much more fragile than his repellent stereotype at first seems — but the story isn’t developed enough to support them.
Tomei’s even more adrift as Gina. She tries her best, bravely walking through half the film in just her pants. but she’s been saddled with a character whose purpose is ultimately as a plot nudge to force part of the finale into place. It’s not a waste of everyone’s time, but BTDKYD is also far from a complete package. “Was that it?” is the question left your head at the end.
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Lumet doesn't damn himself, but it's hardly cinema heaven. Hoffman, Hawke and Finney claw strong moments out of an underwhelming script, but for some the only thing that'll stick is Marisa Tomei with her kit off.