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The often-used phrase about how it was too bad such great acting was wasted on an inferior film has always intrigued me. The last time I felt it was with The Last King of Scotland. There, however, its top-notch performances vaulted its above average story into a highly enjoyable experience. That is how these instances usually go for me. I don’t mind if the movie is on the simple side if the acting is worth the price of admission. A great movie does not need to fire on all cylinders to make me praise it, the acting can always make up for whatever else is lacking. With that said, Sidney Lumet’s highly praised new film, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, brings out some electric turns from its cast. Everyone seems to have sunk their teeth in the roles they were given and they knock them out of the park. In that regard I agree whole-heartedly with critics that we have a return to form for Lumet, better known for his gritty character pieces from the 70’s. Unfortunately, while last year’s Find Me Guilty, his first major film in seven years, was pretty cookie-cutter, it was highly entertaining. I cannot say the same about his new work. Despite its acting clinic, the story is overall boring, contrived, and at times annoying with its gimmick of using multiple storylines to catch what each character was doing before, after, and during the robbery.

Robbery-gone-wrong plots are pretty commonplace. It takes some ingenuity or enjoyable supporting stories to carry an entry in the genre. What was so refreshing for a film like Inside Man is that it was about a robbery gone well. The downfall there was that its periphery Nazi plot was so specific and tacked on, it took away from what worked, the bank heist. Straight from the trailer here, we are told that our leads, Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman, have hatched a plan to rob their parents’ jewelry store. Knowing all the angles, it would be an in-and-out job with no casualties. We all know that something will be going wrong and that the family will be faced with challenges to recuperate from it, but it doesn’t have to be so generic and obvious. Even the other plot threads are unoriginal. For instance, what is thought to be a look inside Hoffman’s psyche with drug abuse in a hotel room eventually turns out to have only been introduced so the locale could be used later on—just because we saw it before doesn’t let it make sense, it becomes unnatural due to how contrived it is.

Lumet and first-time screenwriter Kelly Masterson know that it is all in the details and they show every one of them. We are blatantly shown events and tiny missteps continuously, knowing that they will be coming back into play. The story was so worn that my boredom began manifesting things and scenarios, hoping that the stale events would pick up somehow. Having to see a truck pull into the mall’s parking lot, obstructing the view of the brother’s parents’ car, stuck out so much I started to think that whoever drove it was part of a twist yet to come. Don’t bother with any conspiracy theories; it was just a prop to block the parents’ identities. It is all so fine-tuned and orchestrated that the story just drags along, culminating in a mixed bag conclusion.

The final half hour or so is pretty good, though. The acting steps up drastically, and that says something since it had been in top form throughout, and the stakes finally get raised to the level of me being truly in the dark to what could happen. Only when every character has their back to the wall does the spontaneity and inventiveness finally come out. Too bad it took three quarters of a bloated two-hour runtime to get there. Not only that, but at the very end, it reverts back into blandness. The ending works, don’t get me wrong, it’s just that it is what we thought would play out from the start of the final transition—those epileptic screen flashes to let us know we were moving in time to a different character were laughably annoying—to the last main point of view change, while also allowing the results of a major character’s arc to be left untouched.

Again, though, despite all that is wrong and unoriginal about the story, the performances are fantastic. Ethan Hawke is his generally spot-on self as the “baby” of the family, literally and figurative. He is roped into the theft by his older brother’s smarts and conniving ability to get his sibling to do whatever he wants. As that man, Hoffman is at his best. The salesman smile, the internalizing of his lack of a loving childhood, and the scary rage when the bottom finally falls out, all shape this character to be the most interesting and complex of the bunch. If only Lumet would have honed the film to focus on this role, without all the repetition of getting everyone’s viewpoint, Hoffman could have easily carried the story to greatness. All the supporting players are brilliant too. Albert Finney is devastating as the father, slowly losing his entire family to the robbery’s wake, Brian F. O’Byrne is wonderful as the punk Hawke gets to help him with the heist, and Amy Ryan astonishes mainly from the fact that I could hardly recognize her due to the transformation taken in her last film Gone Baby Gone. Even Marisa Tomei, in a role that is completely a prop used to connect the brothers and their emotional problems and I guess as eye-candy since she is topless for most of the movie, is wonderful. It’s just a shame that the acting couldn’t have been the focal point. The mediocre story pushed through too much, instilling boredom on top of the performances that truly captivated my attention. This film is done much better in Woody Allen’s Cassandra’s Dream, taking similar plot points, but not bogging them down in artifice and convenience.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead 6/10

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photography:
[1] Philip Seymour Hoffman as Andy and Ethan Hawke as Hank in Sidney Lumet drama thriller Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.
[2] Aleksa Palladino as Chris, Michael Shannon as Dex and Ethan Hawke as Hank in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.

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