Fall 2007 is shaping up to be the season of illogical movies. First there was the much-praised Gone Baby Gone, which has a third act twist that's logically crazy and impossible in practicality, and now there's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, a film from the aging non-master Sidney Lumet that twists its narrative into a pointless and annoying timeline-pretzel and in doing so drains every ounce of energy and motivation from the piece, only to arrive at a Greek tragedy climax that has a plot hole so large you could drive a Hummer through it. (Don't worry, I won't spoil it, but I'll just say this -- cops?) That both both films contain performances by Amy Ryan may be their saving grace -- Ryan has a lock on Best Supporting Actress this year that's as tight as Ben Foster's lock on Best Supporting Actor, but that's not enough to push Before the Devil over the line. Nor is its high-grade cast, that includes Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke. Even Marisa Tomei's frequently naked breasts don't get it done.
The plot: two brothers scheme to knock over their parents' jewelry store. Mom and pop will get the insurance money, they'll get the loot, and everyone's rent gets paid. Sounds pretty simple, only -- pause for effect -- something goes wrong. What goes wrong is Rosemary Harris, who re-confirms here what she proved in the Spiderman films -- she can't act worth a lick. Harris plays the boys' mother, who unexpectedly stops the thief they send in to rob her with a handgun and also gets herself shot in the process. 'Big emotion' is not something that should ever be required of Harris, and I felt a tinge of relief when she was dispatched early on in the film -- the less screen time she takes up the better. The boys' father, played by the excellent Albert Finney, sets out to make it his mission in life to find the "guy who did this." And so it begins ... or ends ... or something. The timeline in this film is so herky-jerky that for all I know, my interpretation of its events could be completely wrong.
Were the film re-cut to play in a strong forward momentum, it would be much improved. Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman are both at the top of their form and even though we don't buy them as brothers they still bring an enormous amount of charisma to their roles that elevates the piece beyond its natural station. Hawke, in particular, is especially good as an office drone whose money problems have escalated to the point that he freezes when his young daughter asks him for a hundred dollars for a school trip. When his brother proposes the robbery, his response is "I'm not a big crime kind of guy," which suggests he's done a few Mickey Mouse schemes in the past. Hoffman's character is already a big crime kind of guy, though. He's involved in some kind of embezzling scheme at his real estate accounting business. That's a world I know nothing about, but since Hoffman is already under investigation when the main action begins, would a large sum of money suddenly appearing in his fist really help him?
Marisa Tomei plays Gina, wife of Hoffman's character and mistress of Hawke's. Her only purpose in the story is to be topless in nearly every scene, and I have to say I appreciated that. My review of this film would have been much harsher without that concession on Lumet's part. Still, the movie's insistence on having her be entangled in the lives of both brothers hints strongly to the audience that she'll have some kind of critical involvement in the third act, and that's not really the case. The momentum of the film is not Hoffman-Tomei-Hawke, but Hoffman-Finney-Hawke, and there are only a couple of ways that could resolve itself. Finney does a good job with what he has to work with, playing a man who is simultaneously grieving for his departed wife and sniffing something sinister about what really happened at the jewelry store. As the pieces begin to fall together in his mind, he sets off on an amateur detective hunt, even trailing his sons in a car to confirm his suspicions.
I should point out that Hoffman does some good work in this film as a man who's willing to constantly take it to the next level, crime-wise, when that becomes necessary. In that respect, he's a lot like the Bill Paxton character in the film A Simple Plan. Each crime he commits necessitates more crimes, and he pushes forward because he sees a way that things could, theoretically, all work out. What he is blind to is the odds, when real world complications are factored in. That's an intriguing criminal type, and Hoffman does what he can with the role. The fault for most of this film's deficiencies can be laid squarely at the feet of Lumet, whose insistence on chopping the timeline up into fish bait and reassembling it willy-nilly must have come from some deep-seated need to seem 'with it' like all those young whipper-snappers who enjoy that kind of thing these days. Sidney, why don't you sit down and watch Serpico with all the reels out of order, and tell us how you like it?