It's easy to overpraise the work of a once-great director who's revisiting the genre of one of his most indelible successes. Hearing the name of the 83-year-old master Sidney Lumet and the phrase "heist movie" in the same sentence amounts to nothing less than a cinephile's wet dream; add to that a cast that includes Philip Seymour Hoffman in the prime of his career, and you've got a cabal of critics ready to invoke the spirit of a true Lumet masterpiece like Dog Day Afternoon.
Only problem is, the finished product doesn't withstand that kind of scrutiny. The sad truth is that for all of its tantalizing elements, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is in essence a drab little thriller, born from a clichéd, hard-boiled script that deserved a quick-and-trashy presentation, with an ample injection of jet-black humor. Instead, it has received a ponderous, would-be Shakespearean makeover from a long-in-the-tooth director and a talented but overindulged cast. What should've been an underrated straight-to-cable gem — along the lines of the deliciously devious noir The Last Seduction — has become an overrated "return to form."
If you didn't know better, you might think the film was written in the era of flannel and Clinton, just after Reservoir Dogs came out, when every video-store clerk in America was emboldened to craft his own shit-talking tough-guy flick with a fractured narrative and an ample supply of '70s AM radio hits. Devil drops the tunes and shifts the action to slate-gray suburban New York, but the attempt at realism only dulls the script's snub-nosed action sequences. After a softcore prologue that screams "ironic foreshadowing" — Hoffman and Marisa Tomei doing it doggie style, the latter wearing big hoop earrings — we get at least a taste of the Lumet greatness of yore. An old woman (Rosemary Harris) and a ski-masked badass (Brian O'Byrne) awkwardly face off in a jewelry store; it's obvious that neither of them is a pro at this sort of thing, and when they wield their guns, they're both left with mortal wounds.
This thumbnail sketch — a model of efficiency and suspense — then splinters off into a myriad of subplots leading up to the moment of the crime, some more interesting than others. The heist is revealed to be the scheme of the owners' two sons, Andy (Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke), a couple of prodigal weasels, each with debts of his own. Andy's by far the more nefarious of the two, while Hank is the henpecked runt banging his big bro's wife (Tomei, a low-key oasis amid the flurry of overacting).
The performers exhaust themselves trying to fill in their characters' backstories, since they're not there on the page. Playing the ultimate co-dependent loser, Hoffman grunts and cries and pleads and fills up valuable minutes of screen time sweating like a rotisserie pig. Lumet has always afforded his leads ample space to practice their best method-acting tricks; it's been his greatest gift as well as his biggest curse. But where Al Pacino or Peter Finch oozed charisma and vitality, Hoffman internalizes: His Andy is an inert, selfish bastard, never more so than when he oh-so-disaffectedly destroys his Crate and Barrel-appointed luxury apartment. It's one of many interminable scenes that cause the action to grind to a halt while the actors doodle in the margins of the script.
Lumet gets some things terrifically right: The heavy metal-fueled car ride on the way to the robbery, the drab exchanges with clerks and various insignificant low-lifes, the sad spectacle of casing out your mom's mini-mall boutique shop. But his transitions into the flashbacks are embarrassing to watch: Just before we double back in time a few days, the camera zooms in on the character's face, an editing effect fractures the screen into multiple pieces and a "whoosh" sound materializes on the soundtrack. Not since Wayne's World have narrative shifts been more crystal clear.
For all his pretzel logic and distended sequences, the director can't find the core of this material. Andy and Hank are unconvincing as siblings; it comes as a surprise late in the film that either of them craves the attention of their father (Albert Finney). The array of shallow personal lives on display — a little corporate fraud here, some late alimony payments there — seem like mere plot requirements instead of organic character traits. If, after all the hype surrounding Devil, you find yourself disappointed by its half-baked themes and convenient plot twists, chances are your feelings will be neatly summarized in an exchange between Andy and his drug dealer: "I want more." The reply: "So does Oliver Twist."
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].