‘Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead’ movie review: Sidney Lumet’s noir swan song

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An exhilarating return to form for Sidney Lumet, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is the director’s best film in 25 years (since – at least – 1982’s The Verdict). 

Lumet launched his film career in the late 50’s/early 60’s with classics like 12 Angry Men and The Pawnbroker, before establishing the gritty New York City style that would define him in the 1970’s with Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, and other films. 

At age 83, Lumet has returned to his roots and is back in full force with the stark, compelling, wickedly ironic Devil.

Film begins with a jewelry store robbery horribly wrong, leaving both the robber and an elderly shop assistant in pools of blood; the layers leading up to this key event are then slowly peeled away, as we’re taken through various points-of-views of members of the Hanson family. 

Brothers Andy (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke) could both use some money (who couldn’t?) – financial exec Andy to support his drug habit, pitiful divorcee Hank to afford his child support payments. 

Mom (Rosemary Harris) and Dad (Albert Finney) own a jewelry store. So the brothers hatch a seemingly simple plan in which everybody wins. As we already know from the opening scene, however, things don’t go exactly as planned. 

And as the story unfolds – we already know what happens, just not how it came to happen – things become more and more emotionally devastating; we watch with dreaded anticipation, not concerned with the outcome, but with the decisions of these characters, and how they could be so wrong and so stupid and cause such a horrific mess. 

Every member of the cast, down to the smallest role, is perfect; Finney and Hoffman are solid as usual and share a number of key scenes, and Hawke, cast against type, gives one of his best performances as the cowardly, pathetic younger brother who seems to be at the center of the family’s troubles. 

Low-key production values enhance the mood and heighten the realism. But the most surprising thing about the film is Lumet’s direction: he pulls off the nonlinear timeline with gusto, drawing us into the story slowly but surely before pulling the emotional punches. 

Haunting, memorable original score by Carter Burwell.

Title is derived from the famous Gaelic toast that opens the film: “May you be in heaven half an hour…before the devil knows you’re dead.”

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

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Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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