Thursday, 31 January 2008

Review: Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is a dark crime thriller, following the events surrounding a family's involvement in a botched jewellery store robbery. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke star as the brothers at the centre of the story, with Albert Finney as their father and Marisa Tomei as Hoffman's wife.

The acting throughout is pretty much flawless, with the four principal characters playing off each other brilliantly throughout. The fraternal relationship at the centre of the film reminded me of 'We Own the Night', but whereas Wahlberg and Phoenix (a more natural pair of screen-brothers, in appearance at least) didn't sit entirely right as siblings in that film, Hoffman and Hawke, despite perhaps not looking like relations, pull off a much more convincing interaction here. In their scenes together, Hoffman, Hawke and Finney really feel like a broken family, and while the script avoids giving away specifics about their childhood experiences, there is clearly an unspecified pressure building under the surface throughout.

In acting terms, Hoffman stands out yet again as an amazing character actor and his portrayal of Andy Hanson is vile, selfish and almost totally unlikeable, without ever descending into caricature or melodrama. Hawke and Finney also do good work, and in any other film their performances would probably stand out as magnificent, but it's almost impossible to compete with Hoffman at his best.

The story is told in a slightly odd fashion, jumping back and forth in the timeline of events and following different characters for periods of time. This is an interesting choice, and one that I'm not sure necessarily works. Moving around in the timeline can be useful as a technique for revealing unknown plot points that shed a different light on previously-seen events, causing the viewer to re-evaluate their assumptions. However, in this case there isn't really that much to reveal, and so the jumping back and forward in time simply ends up slowing the pace of the film down as sections are repeated from different points of view without really adding anything to the experience.

The plot also seems a little threadbare at times. There are a lot of different plot strands, some only hinted at, and a fair amount of unexplored references to the family history. The female characters especially seem underused, with Tomei the most visible still taking a back seat during most of the film to the three leading men. It seems as though by concentrating more on particular relationships and maybe giving a little more background, the film could have evoked a more powerful reaction, though I am also not unhappy to see a film that is comfortable in its ambiguity.

The film as a whole is enjoyable, and watching the tension rack up and the family start to self destruct is (while not necessarily pleasant) compulsive viewing, but really the main thing bumping it up from a good film to a recommended one is Hoffman's performance, which swings from simply greasy and selfish to unpredictable and finally outright terrifying. The plot seems to think it has more to reveal than it really does, but there's enough there to keep you watching, and if you can handle the ambiguity and lack of resolution, there's an interesting couple of hours of entertainment here.

Verdict: Tense, interesting, character study with great performances from everyone. Sketchy plot and potentially unsatisfying ending take the shine off an otherwise intriguing piece. 7/10

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