Do you Mind if I Call you Chico?, 5 November 2007
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA
Two dysfunctional brothers (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke) get tired of competing for who is the bigger f***-up and who Daddy (Albert Finney) loves more, so they hatch a hair-brained scheme to rob Mommy and Daddy’s jewelry store so that they can clear their debts and start fresh. Sounds like a great plan except that this is a suspenseful 1970’s style melodrama about a heist gone wrong, and boy, do things really go wrong here for our hapless duo and everyone involved. Lasciviously concocted by screenwriter Kelly Masterson and classically executed by director Sidney Lumet, “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” uses the heist as its McGuffin to delve deep into family drama.
Contrary to popular belief, Sidney Lumet is not dead. At age 83, he has apparently made a deal with the Devil to deliver one last great film. Lumet was at his zenith in the 1970’s with films like “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Serpico,” and one of my favorite films of all time, “Network”. He has somehow managed to make a film that bears all the hallmarks of his classics while intertwining some more modern elements (graphic sexuality, violence, and playing with time-frames and POV’s) into a crackling, vibrant, lean, mean, and provocative melodrama. One can only hope that some of the modern greats (like Scorsese or Spielberg) who emerged during the same decade Lumet was at the top of his game will have this much chutzpah left when they reach that age.
Lumet is a master at directing people walking through spaces to create tension and develop characters. As the cast waltzes through finely appointed Manhattan offices and apartments his slowly moving camera creates a palpable sense of anxiety as we never know who might be around the next corner or what this person might do in the next room. Also amazing is how Lumet utilizes the multiple POV and shifting time-frame approach. The coherent and classical presentation he uses makes the similarly structured films of wunderkinds Christopher Nolan and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu seem like amateur hour.
Of course, what Lumet is best at is directing amazing ensemble casts and tricking them into acting within an inch of their lives. Philip Seymour Hoffman has never been, and most likely never will be, better than he is here. Albert Finney’s quietly searing portrayal of a father betrayed and at the end of his rope is a masterpiece to watch unfold. Ethan Hawke, normally a nondescript pretty boy, is perfect as the emotionally crippled younger brother who has skated by far too long on his charms and looks. The coup-de-grace, however, is the series of scenes between Hoffman and Marisa Tomei, eerily on point as his flighty trophy wife. Lumet runs them through the gamut of emotions that culminate in a scene that is the best of its kind since William Holden taunted Beatrice Straight right into a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in “Network.”
The Devil of any great film is in the details, from Albert Finney’s tap of his car’s trunk that won’t close due to a fender bender, to the look Amy Ryan (fresh off her amazing turn in “Gone Baby Gone”) gives her ex-husband Ethan Hawke at his mawkish promise to his little girl all three of them knows he won’t keep, to the systematic unraveling of a family on the skids, to the dialog begging for cultists to quote it (my favorite line being the hilariously threatening “Do you mind if I call you Chico?”) to the excellent Carter Burwell score. “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” is the film of the year. If something emerges to best it, then we know a few other deals must’ve been brokered with Old Scratch.
Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:
GREAT review, David — you’re a fantastic writer, and you really captured the essence of this film. I especially like how you pointed out something I hadn’t noticed: the way Lumet uses camera angles to enhance that tense, claustrophobic feeling the characters have as their plan collapses in on them.
M. Carter @ the Movies
Thanks for stopping by and reading! I’m enjoying your blog as well and have added it to my links. –DHS