Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD (Sidney Lumet, 2007)
* (Has redeeming facet)
There's some good acting on display in certain scenes but that's all it is: on display. Lumet hasn't suddenly developed any technique in his ninth decade. His work functions as perhaps the exact inverse of Pauline Kael's compliment of the young Spielberg (I paraphrase, away from my library): "It's like he's never seen a play." The staginess of Lumet's direction is arguably even sub-theatrical never having progressed beyond his live television roots. Some theatricality would liven things up.
Lumet's limitations don't sink a script on the level of Chayefsky's for NETWORK but with a dull script such as Kelly Masterson's for BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD, the viewer is left with lots of time to consider how little Lumet adds to the proceedings. Masterson's script suffers from the same fundamental flaw as Gulliermo Arriaga's script for Inarritu's 21 GRAMS: achronological storytelling and melodrama do not mix. In both films, gifted actors wear themselves out playing the emotion of moments that are jumbled up and studied by filmmakers and audience rather than felt. That BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD fails to use its achronological structure to reveal more about the characters rather than just jump around in time and perspective, the choice to release the tension every reel or so rather than let the would-be tragedy build baffles. The underlying melodramatic scenarios of both scripts might have been sufficient to propel a fairly successful film but the makers' hubris or lack of self-knowledge precluded either effort from achieving even a basic level of effectiveness.
Because their characters are denied an emotional arc, neither Philip Seymour Hoffman nor Ethan Hawke make a significant impression despite giving what are probably, in and of themselves, effective performances. Still they do better than the thoroughly overqualified Albert Finney, Marisa Tomei, and Rosemary Harris who have little to play in the first place. The only actors who emerge unscathed are those in bit roles who aren't sabotaged by the screenplay's structure. Thus I'm primarily left with the memory of Brian F. O'Byrne and Michael Shannon's quickly sketched criminals.