Just imagine if M. Night Shyamalan sat in the front row of every theater The Sixth Sense was shown in, pointed towards the screen at Bruce Willis and said, “Oh, by the way, this guy’s really dead” in the first ten minutes. He wouldn’t ever think of doing such a thing because that shocker is the most compelling part of his story. Leave that sort of revelation to Sidney Lumet. As if telling a gripping story with style and innovation for a solid 117 minutes isn’t enough for him, Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead achieves mastery by giving the plot twists away before they happen. Sure these twists aren’t on the Shyamalan-twist-level, but for a heist-film, dependent on the successful planning and executing of a crime where the twists often harbor most of the intrigue and suspense, the fact that Lumet found a linear narrative unnecessary simply shows the strength of Kelly Masterson’s genius characters made richer and more complex by the performances the actors bring to the roles.
The film’s premise seems simple enough—two brothers, strapped for cash, decide to rob a familiar jewelry store and things go drastically wrong. And while this is the concept established in the beginning, with each jarring jolt through Lumet’s nonlinear narrative, the premise becomes further complicated and manipulated. By the end of the film, this simplified plot description seems condescending as the story is complicated by familial grapples, brotherly resentment, rage, grief, guilt, and desperation that are each given careful consideration and screen time. Not only does the plot morph with each time jump, but the characters do too. In the beginning, as with the initial premise, the characters are also simplified and fit stereotypical roles. Andy, the older brother played by the always-crafty Philip Seymour Hoffman, seems to be the brother who has all his ducks in a row. We may sense some sinister secret lurking, but he is the prodigal son with the fancy office, pretty wife (Marisa Tomei), and the added privilege of being able to ask his little brother, Hank, if he needs money. He’s nothing we haven’t seen before. Similarly, Hank, played by Ethan Hawke, is the black-sheep, the screw-up of the family, with the angry ex-wife and the inability to pay for his daughter’s child support. We don’t even know until after we’re shown Hank’s involvement in the robbery that the two are brothers, or that Andy was the instigator of the crime or even involved with it at all. Lumet lets us perceive the characters a certain way so that when he shifts (and at times completely flips) those perceptions later, the audience is all the more invested because of the realization that there is still more to the plot, and more to the characters, waiting to be uncovered. The result is an extremely satisfying film experience from the late veteran director who still had a plethora of innovation up his sleeve when he made this movie.
This style of revealing the character’s trait by trait, of having them grow in complexity not only as the story evolves and unfolds before us, but as Lumet picks and chooses what he wants us to know, is effective because it still allows the viewer to be active in the uncovering of information. Lumet cleverly walks the boundary between leading us on the journey where he literally manipulates the order in which we’re given information and allowing the audience to navigate the plot for themselves. He may withhold Hank’s motivation and back story until the very end, he may choose to hide major facets of the plot or even major characters until well into the movie, but he allows the viewer to do some of the digging without holding their hand and guiding them through his broken narrative. For example, following the film’s first jarring sex scene between Hank and his wife that sets up this in-your-face, take-what-you-get-one-scene-at-a-time storytelling comes our first view of the robbery. Our introduction to Hank shows him reacting in a fit of violent sobs and panic as his partner-in-crime plunges through the store’s glass window after being shot by, and shooting in return, the little old lady who opened the store. The only clue we have that something bigger lurks behind this story comes from the acting—another strength of the film—and Hawke’s capture of a man so twisted and internally damaged by this singular moment that the audience is convinced there’s more to the story than just any ol’ robbery gone south. The film is as dependent on the acting as it is the plot, because so many of the thoughts and assumptions about the characters come from how intensely the characters break and what event causes their emotional demise. What makes the film effective in its storytelling is the way that all the elements—acting, dialogue, editing, camera—are dependent on each other to achieve meaning. If any element was missing, or its quality was lessened, Lumet’s vision wouldn’t have been achieved. Luckily for Lumet, the high-quality work is consistent throughout, and a large part of that quality is due to the acting chops of its decorated cast.
But Lumet doesn’t solely rely on acting to convey character traits not explicitly stated, but he uses the camera as well. In the scene following our first look at the robbery where Lumet drops a bomb that changes the tenor of all the scenes we’ve seen previously, he reveals the information in such an unexpected, casual way that he calls attention to it. The scene involves Hank and his family praising his daughter for her performance in the school play. What’s interesting is Lumet’s camera. As it nonchalantly displays the family during their exchange, it focuses on no one in particular, but allows us to catch a glimpse of the same little old lady who was robbed at gunpoint standing next to her sweet granddaughter. This detail creates a gasp in the audience that could’ve easily been overlooked. Suddenly, by this casual reveal, we understand the woman’s connection is much closer to Hank than we initially thought. Where a different director may opt for the dramatics and choose to cut to a close-up of the happy grandparents, or have them utter some now ominous line about the importance of family support as a “dum, dum, dum” theme pounds through the speakers, Lumet barely calls attention to the parents at all, giving them as little consideration as we now know Hank and Andy do. These reveals are more gratifying because not only is the information shocking, but the way we receive the information is shocking as well. Lumet respects the viewer’s intelligence and ability to reach this conclusion without his help.
The plot of Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is a constant layering of blocks. You start with general ideas and general clichéd characters and with each scene and reveal, or even the same scene shown in a new light, more blocks are added. The plot is like a game of Jenga, you know from the very beginning, without a doubt, that the tower will fall, but the layers and layers of character development and expertly tiered exposition make the character’s demise all the more interesting. At any moment, one block removal could send the tower crumbling. The viewer sees multiple ways the story could reach its tragic ruin, but the intrigue comes from which block causes the final breakdown. The time lapses could easily grow monotonous, or make us cringe when we go back to the same spot we’ve been at three times before, but it doesn’t. This is because we weren’t given enough information the first time, we’re begging for more. The film doesn’t make us reach for the closest object to launch at the screen in frustration that time jumped once again, but compels us to sit back and absorb another element that will further complicate the characters and the plot.
What is truly marveling about the film is how it speaks to the ways in which we become invested in a story and in individual characters. Lumet’s character development is inside out. In the beginning Hoffman’s Andy is unlikable and hardly sympathetic. We may feel bad about the precarious state of his marriage, but he is presented as a desperate amoral criminal despite his supposed “moral” crime. And once the crime becomes anything but as “simple as a pimple” as it’s initially described, Andy becomes less and less sympathetic and we don’t fully understand his motivations until the end when Hoffman crafts his brilliant emotional and psychological fall in two subsequent tantrums. Whereas most films set up a sympathetic character to justify his later actions, in this film we don’t feel sympathy until after we’ve seen what he’s done and begin to understand why. When his problems are tied so tightly that there’s no way out, and he’s financially and emotionally broken, we don’t sympathize with his position but his desire to still please his wife—who’s leaving him—by giving her the last money he has while mumbling the words, “I’ll go to the bank later” as if that’s a real possibility. It’s in this humanist exchange that he becomes sympathetic for the first time, and it doesn’t come until the final act.
The film manages to become a realistic character study despite the unrealistic way in which it’s told. In real life, time is linear, we don’t gain access to people and events out of order, but Lumet achieves a sense of reality with a style entirely outside the realm of possibility and he does so in an innovative way that makes us grapple with the ways we typically receive information. The form of the story is, in some ways, more important than the story itself which makes for a captivating, interactive film experience and another solid directorial win for Sidney Lumet.