Though his name isn't bandied about as often as Spielberg, Scorsese, or Eastwood, Academy Award-winning director Sidney Lumet has become one of the most influential filmmakers in the industry today. His canon boasts a list of challenging films that have pushed American audiences to embrace cinema as a substantial art form. '12 Angry Men,' 'Serpico,' 'Dog Day Afternoon,' 'Murder on the Orient Express,' 'Network,' 'The Verdict' -- I could spend an entire day writing about his work. Even at 84 years old, Lumet continues to create fascinating movies, adopt new filmmaking techniques, and hold the attention of fans and critics around the world.
His latest masterpiece, 'Before the Devil Knows You're Dead,' is a tragic story of family frailty, moral consequence, and parental disenchantment. Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a crooked payroll executive who convinces his younger brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) to knock off what he refers to as "a mom-and-pop jewelry store." To Hank's dismay, the jewelry store in Andy's sights turns out to be their own parents' heavily-insured business. Hank reluctantly buys into Andy's "victimless" scheme, but panics when the robbery goes horribly wrong. Reeling to cover their tracks and deal with the consequences of their actions, Andy and Hank turn on each other as the truth begins to surface.
Throughout his career, Lumet has worked to align strong scripts with impeccable casting. With 'Before the Devil Knows You're Dead,' he's once again succeeded in uniting sharp writing with excellent performances. Hoffman is a godsend, I'm shocked he doesn't have a stack of Oscars in his closet. He portrays Andy as a tormented son who could never live up to his father's expectations. His drug addiction and emotional disconnection from his wife are stunningly acted and painful to watch. Hawke is on fire here as well, creating an effortless counterpoint to Hoffman's cold-hearted composure. He molds Hank into a bundle of nerves with good intentions, who has trouble committing to his actions despite his inability to choose a righteous path. As the story barrels toward its tragic conclusion, his story emerges as the central focus of the film as he shifts from sniveling victim to sympathetic everyman.
The supporting actors are also fantastic. Albert Finney delivers yet another subtle performance as Hank and Andy's father, a man determined to uncover the truth while dealing with the consequences of the way he raised his boys. His heartbreaking portrayal of a man losing everything he ever loved is touching and sincere. Marisa Tomei gives a powerfully reserved performance as Andy's wife, quickly emerging as the central female voice in the film. Abandoned, rejected, and depressed, she portrays a woman trapped by her choices and anchored to a series of men who never make her feel as though she belongs.
Lumet's steady fingerprints are all over the film. Relying on a revolving series of non-linear flashbacks and a collection of HD cameras, Lumet has constructed a startlingly post-modern film. In fact, if I didn't already know it, I would've never guessed that an 84-year old director was responsible for 'Before the Devil Knows You're Dead.' His focus shifts and follows each character to deliver their singular perspective. This interlocking network slowly reveals the entirety of the story, develops the character motivations, and, ultimately, assembles all of the pieces that lead to the story's jaw-dropping conclusion. Lumet maintains a minimalist approach to the plot throughout -- if it doesn't directly relate to the story at hand, it isn't given any attention. As a result, what could have been a plodding drama, becomes a tense emotional thriller.
'Before the Devil Knows You're Dead' is a film I'll continue to revisit. Its expertly crafted layers will likely continue to reveal finer aspects of the characters and story long after my first viewing. After seeing Lumet's film, I definitely need to revise my list of the Top Ten films of 2007, it's an astonishing piece of filmmaking that engaged my heart and mind from beginning to end.
Shot entirely with Panavision Genesis HD Cameras, Image Entertainment's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer looks as fantastic as I had hoped. Colors are nearly non-existent in Lumet's oversaturated world, but his intentionally bleached palette makes the red sheen of blood all the more startling to behold. Exterior shots are overexposed and interiors are heaped with shadow, but it imbues the cinematography witha noirish sensibility that produces palpable discomfort with each scene. Even so, the transfer's fine details are what really impress. I found myself fascinated by was skin texture of all things. Every pore, hair, and freckle is visible, but the sharpness doesn't render such details in an unnatural fashion like it has in other HD cam productions. Instead, the entire image is graced with a dimensionality and depth that moves 'Before the Devil Knows You're Dead' into demo territory. More importantly, there isn't a hint of artifacting, banding, or edge enhancement -- aside from a moderate veneer of grain, the image is incredibly clean.
I do have two minor nitpicks, but they don't amount to anything that should detract from the experience. Delineation is occasionally oppressive, limiting detail in the harshest shadows and light. Contrast is also a tad uncomfortable at times -- hot whites flush a few scenes and sully the otherwise perfect picture. Still, the aspects of the image people might complain about when watching 'Before the Devil Knows You're Dead' are the result of Lumet's directorial decisions. While a director's style isn't always sacrosanct in my opinion, I definitely felt his particular choices elevated the tone of the film and elicited very specific emotional responses.
'Before the Devil Knows You're Dead' features a remarkable DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track that highlights the subtle aspects of the mix and makes the deafening violence all the more unsettling. Dynamics take center stage throughout the film, grafting low-end sounds with confident LFE support and treble tones with breezy stability. The surround presentation is also impressive -- believable acoustics consistently enhance the interior scenes, ambiance regularly contributes to the experience, and channel pans are swift and smooth. I wouldn't call the rear soundscape aggressive, but it does make its presence known. The first act robbery and third act violence sound amazing -- guns crack through silence like thunder, shattering glass scatters across the soundfield, and screams fill the soundscape. 'Before the Devil Knows You're Dead' packs in quite a few standout moments and will certainly catch the attention of fans and newcomers alike.
The lone issue I had with the track is that background noise tends to creep into quieter scenes, as if the sound designers had a difficult time bringing the dialogue to the forefront of the scene. It made these scenes feel more naturalistic, but it also hindered the clarity of the soundscape. Overall, the DTS HD MA track on 'Before the Devil Knows You're Dead' tackles the aggressive gunplay and the gentler character exchanges with the same gusto. I enjoyed the audio on this disc through and through.
Sharing the same supplemental package as the standard DVD, 'Before the Devil Knows You're Dead' may not have a lot of content to offer, but what it provides is exceptionally thorough. Conversation driven dramas tend to offer bland featurettes and dry commentaries, but this one is a cut above.
'Before the Devil Knows You're Dead' is a challenging masterpiece from director Sidney Lumet, one that showcases a strong script and a collection of exceptional performances. The Blu-ray edition is just as impressive, boasting a striking video transfer and a noteworthy DTS HD MA track. It doesn't have a ton of special features, but it does include a commentary and a behind-the-scenes featurette that are almost as interesting as the film itself. All things considered, 'Before the Devil Knows You're Dead' is a fantastic release on all fronts -- don't let it slip under your radar.