Thursday, January 21, 2010

Underrated Movie #19: Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

A fifth recent movie, now with even more Hoffman-y goodness:

Title: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
Year: 2007
Director: Sidney Lumet
Writer: Kelly Masterson
Stars: Philip Seymour Hoffman (Doubt), Ethan Hawke (Before Sunrise), Marisa Tomei (The Wrestler), Albert Finney (Two for the Road), Brian F. O’Byrne (“Doubt” on Broadway)

The Story: Two brothers come up with a fool-proof plan to hold up their parents’ jewelry store, but everything goes wrong.

How it Came to be Underrated: This was well reviewed, but underseen.

Why It’s Great:

  1. Remember, right after Pulp Fiction came out, when there was a flood of similar non-linear crime movies? Remember how bad those were? It was courageous for anybody to even look at another script from this well-worn sub-genre. I’m glad they did, because, lo and behold, it’s great. Lumet read the script, and he loved it, but he insisted on one change: the original script made the audience figure out on their own that it was jumping back in forth in time. Lumet realized that a guessing game like that only made the audience feel dumb. He said he’d love to direct it, but only if he could add title cards before every sequence, like “Hank: 3 Days Before the Robbery”, etc. Even if every other decision he made had been wrong, that alone would have made him the right director.
  2. Lumet was 83. He had been already been cashiered out of Hollywood with a Lifetime Achievement Oscar. Many of his recent movies had failed to deliver. Nobody would have guessed that he had a flat-out burst of street-smart aggression like this left in him. If his goal was to make to make all the other retirement-age directors look bad, he succeeded.
  3. How does Marisa Tomei’s performance manage to be both totally egoless and wildly sexy. Usually, that’s an either/or proposition. My favorite moment in the movie? When she carries a suitcase out of an apartment, awkwardly bumping it along the step. Style is the last thing on her mind. You can’t take your eyes off her.
  4. It’s so nice to see a heist movie that actually understands something about human nature. I hate movies where the hero gets lured into a crime, only to find out that a criminal mastermind has engineered a year-long con that includes letting the hero sleep with his girlfriend. That just isn't how crime works. Cons don’t let their marks sleep with their girlfriends. All crimes are petty crimes. Crime is not a clever thing to do. People commit crimes because they’re not thinking straight. People commit crimes because they’re hurt and they’re angry and they want to get theirs.

Underrated Compared To: every other heist movie from the last ten years. Seriously, was there another good one I’m forgetting?

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Another great underrated Lumet crime movie was Prince of the City. Lumet has had a brilliant 55-year career (so far), stretching from to Twelve Angry Men through Fail Safe and Network and at least a dozen other movies that everybody should see.

How Available Is It?: On dvd and Watch Instantly

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: My All-Time Favorite Panel:

(I forget where I got it from… Maybe Lady, That’s My Skull?)


Steve Bird said...

I also found Night Falls On Manhattan to be an underwatched and underapreciated Lumet movie from a dozen years ago. As for heist films, I really enjoyed the remake of The Italian Job in a popcorn sort of way. Also, the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair is one of my favorite movies.

Matt Bird said...

I never saw Night Falls on Manhattan. I should check that out. I liked the Italian Job remake, and the first Ocean's Eleven remake too, for that matter. (and Thomas Crown, but that was more than ten years ago now.) I guess I thinking in terms of smash-and-grab heist films, not the higher-end stuff.

j.s. said...

Have to totally agree with Steve about NIGHT FALLS ON MANHATTAN, which was pretty much the best Sidney Lumet movie I had not yet seen. With elements that recall SERPICO, PRINCE OF THE CITY (from a novel by the same author) and THE VERDICT and stand out performances from stars like Andy Garcia (who had already peaked), James Gandolfini (who was on his way up) and Ian Holm (who was in the middle of a late career resurgence), this one seemed so straightforward at first but surprised me at several key junctures with developments that rise to the level of the complex ironies Matt's always after in his own writing. Everything is always even more hard to want to do then you think it will be. And of course it supplies the kind of trademark authenticity that made Lumet stand out even in the increasingly crowded field of NYC storytellers working in procedurals.