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Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Released 2008. Director: Sidney Lumet

MAN MAY MAKE PLANS, BUT GOD ALONE DECIDES. Whoever said that knew perfectly well that even the best laid plans can and will, in all likelihhod, go awry. So it is when a foolproof plan takes an unexpected turn and goes horribly wrong. A perfect crime where no one is supposed to get hurt tears a family apart. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is a crime thriller that becomes a shattering family tragedy, a flawless blend of art-house sensibility and mainstream know-how, and a showcase of master storytelling.

Three years after receiving his lifetime achievement Oscar, 83-year-old director Sidney Lumet gives us one of his best works, yet. Sensitively written by first-time screenwriter Kelly Masterson, the story centres on a robbery at a jewellery store, and the devastating consequences that befall the people involved. Lumet unfolds the series of events from several perspectives in a non-linear inter-cutting style. The plot flows in an urgent rhythm as two brothers who planned the crime struggle to deal with the crushing emotional impact of their actions. What they have done is actually robbing the store owned by their parents.

The heart of this story is not made up of plotting devices of what happens next, but who’s doing what, why, and what it means for them. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays an ostensibly successful executive but chest deep in trouble brought on by drugs and embezzlement. As his younger brother, Ethan Hawke’s needy and helpless character is just as dire with his financial quagmire and an affair with his brother’s bored wife.

The botched scheme pulls the brothers deeper into a vortex of deception and desperation. The deeper they sink, the more desperate they become, and their decisions turn even more irrational and dangerous.

What makes these characters stand out from the usual movies of thieves and robbers is how they are fully aware of their irreversible mistakes and weaknesses, scared and genuinely remorseful. This film is so well written, directed, acted and edited it’s a crime that it has been grossly overlooked at award seasons. Veteran actor Albert Finney, as the troubled father, is a picture of anger and bewilderment. He takes a supporting role and makes it a pivotal focus as the maelstrom swirls around the family.

The scene in the courtyard when father and son faced up to years of pent-up emotions is a powerful and memorable moment to accompany Finney’s and Hoffman’s career highlights. These characters may make one disastrous mistake after another, but the cast never take a wrong step throughout.

Brother against brother, sons against father, this is a family tragedy of grave disappointment and heartbreak. Intense, bitter, startling, it’s acting of a high calibre, drama of a high order.


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