Recently, I interviewed 80-year-old filmmaking legend Walter Hill on the occasion of his latest feature, the old-school Western Dead for a Dollar. When speaking about how this film is in conversation with his overall canon, he pivoted to how a director’s work evolves over the course of their career. “People ask you sometimes—obviously because I’m an old director—“When are you gonna retire?” I generally say directors don’t retire,” he said. “I’ve never known one that retired. Every old director I’ve ever known—and I’ve known a lot of them—was always looking to do another movie.”
You don’t often hear about directors making an intentional decision to call it a day. Steven Soderbergh takes playful jabs constantly about his retirement announcement being immediately followed by a more prolific output than just about any other working director. Quentin Tarantino has famously gotten plenty of attention for his vehement claim that his next film will be his last—a statement this writer, at least, is incredibly skeptical of.
For most directors, they don’t know when their final film is going to be their final film, and due to the nature of the industry, and the demands that come with filmmaking, there aren’t many examples of directors going out on extraordinarily high notes. “I’d be the first to say it’s a young person’s game,” Hill said. “It takes a lot of energy and focus to do these things.” More often than not, filmmakers peter out with some mid-tier work at best, or shaggy cult favorites that devoted fans hail as masterpieces primarily due to how that work reflects a filmmaker’s now-familiar pet passions.
Sidney Lumet was 83 when Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead was released in 2007, but if his name hadn’t been synonymous with cinema for the last 55 years thanks to classics like 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network and so many more, you would have thought his final feature was helmed by someone half his age. With its frenetic editing, booming score, razor-sharp dialogue throwing barbs at pitiable, loathsome characters, and early adoption of digital filmmaking, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead feels more akin to a bravura upstart making their second or third film than an old industry stalwart on his last hurrah.
The plan was so simple for financial executive Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his younger brother Hank (Ethan Hawke), a lower-level employee at the same company. Andy has been hedging funds from his books to afford the lavish lifestyle he’s gotten accustomed to with his wife Gina (Marisa Tomei), along with his addiction to cocaine and heroin. Hank, meanwhile, is scraping by in his shitty apartment, mounting debt to his ex-wife Martha (Amy Ryan) as he’s three months behind on child support payments. They both need cash fast to get them out of these depths and, unsurprisingly, it’s Andy with the lightbulb going off.
Before we learn any of this, though, we see how things are going to go disastrously awry. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead was written by Kelly Masterson, the first feature screenplay written on spec by the award-winning playwright, and its fragmented timeline jumps from different points in the narrative as well as different character perspectives. It keeps us on our toes and offers a full scope of how each member of this family is dealing with the build-up to its central event, the event itself and the tragic aftermath. That event in question is the robbery of a small shopping center jewelry store, “between a Foot Locker and a Claire’s Accessories,” run by Andy and Hank’s parents (Albert Finney and Rosemary Harris), and those best laid plans go to waste pretty fast when the robbery leads to their mother, Nanette, suffering a fatal gunshot wound.
The verve of Masterson’s writing is reflected in Lumet’s style. A director known for a career of framing his actors and letting them go to work, there’s a lot more movement and versatility in this film’s shooting than you might expect from Lumet. That comes from the flexibility he’s given with shooting on digital. Lumet had experimented and become enamored with shooting on HD video with the short-lived early 2000s A&E legal thriller 100 Centre Street. Before the Devil would be his first time employing the new technique with a feature.
Given what a veteran Lumet was, it’s astonishing to watch or read interviews with him from the time of the film and see the spark he had when discussing this new technology. Plenty of our most acclaimed directors still refuse to shoot on anything but film, but Lumet never wanted to use it again after working with digital. In an interview on Shout! Factory’s Before the Devil Blu-ray, he explains that shooting digital was so much more convenient than the pain in the ass of working with film that he thought film would soon become obsolete. He said that anything he could get on film, he could get on digital—and get it better, quicker and cheaper.
Even in his 80s, Lumet was constantly looking for new ways to experiment and change his game; Before the Devil shows how a steady hand can take this new trick and employ it with old style. Reteaming with cinematographer Ron Fortunato, Lumet shot many scenes with two cameras rolling on different actors at the same time, allowing him to capture organic responses in the moment rather than needing to patch together coverage over different setups. This allows an even more in-your-face experience that fits appropriately within Lumet’s adoration of actors above all else.
This shines most memorably in a car sequence between Andy and Gina, leaving the wake after Nanette’s funeral. We’ve just seen Andy’s brutally revealing conversation with his father, Charles. Charles apologizes for pushing his son too hard and Andy says, “I’m sorry I couldn’t be the son you wanted.” Charles’ reassurance? “You did the best you could.”
The pained expression on Hoffman’s face shows how these six words cut like a knife, and it gives Andy the leverage to launch into a baiting dagger, saying that he never felt like he was part of the family—that Hank was always so cute and so loved, and Andy was neglected. He then asks Charles if he’s sure Andy is actually his son, to which his father smacks him across the face and walks away. Maybe not the best thing to say at your mother’s funeral. Driving away from the home with Gina in the passenger seat, Andy pulls over and has an emotional breakdown. He unloads, practically wailing in the car as his face overruns with tears and he essentially curses the gods, shouting to no one in particular that it’s not fair for his father to apologize now. “He doesn’t get to do that,” he exclaims—somewhat to Gina, but more so to the universe at large. After all of the pain and anguish his father has caused him, he simply will not abide the idea that Charles can just say he’s sorry and be forgiven.
Hoffman’s performance, maybe the finest of his career, is sensational. He unloads a character who has up until now done everything in his power to remain calm, cool and collected while his world crumbles. It’s shattering, a scene I recall shaking me to my core in the theater 15 years ago. But the gift of shooting with this multi-camera setup was the ability to capture Hoffman’s magnificent work in all of its detail while showing us Tomei’s authentic reaction to exactly what we’re seeing. Her complete and utter shock when he first unleashes, as caught off-guard by this vocal expression of heartache from a man so quiet as we are, pales only to her inability to console him.
It’s a moment reflected with its polar opposite later on, when Gina finally works up the courage to leave Andy, having had enough of him shutting her out. After an awkward back-and-forth about her going—where she also happens to reveal the fact that she’s been sleeping with Hank—she’s gone. Andy is alone. While most films would have him tear the place apart in violent hysteria, Lumet stages a destructive unraveling like we’ve never seen. Andy slowly, carefully, methodically tears his apartment to shreds. He quietly pushes everything off his bedroom dresser, flips the mattress and dismantles his bed, then heads into the living room and dumps a large bowl of decorative elongated marbles onto a glass table. It’s far more unnerving than a conventional set destruction, punctuated by Hoffman’s chilling resolve.
Hoffman’s not alone in giving some of his best work, not surprising when discussing a Lumet feature. Coming from the theater, the director has always worshiped actors and ensured they felt as comfortable as possible so they could let loose, discovering the fullness of their performances. He hired actors experienced on the stage, filling out his supporting cast with early film performances from Amy Ryan, Brian F. O’Byrne and Michael Shannon. In those Blu-ray interviews, you’ll hear Hawke describe Lumet as the most prepared director he’s ever worked with. Everyone in the cast praises the rehearsal process as being similar to working on a play, where everything is meticulously coordinated and mastered before you even begin shooting. This lets the actors become so comfortable that they can live and breathe these characters, and improvise from scene to scene.
This plays out beautifully in a late scene, when everything has fully come undone for Hank and Andy. They’re this close to having their antics revealed and ending up in prison—or in the grave—when Andy brings Hank with him to rob his high-end drug dealer. With barely any hesitation, Andy clocks the shockingly young dealer with a pistol a few times before shooting the client in the apartment in cold blood, then shooting the dealer himself. Hank, beside himself with fright, is speechless. Andy asks him, “Are we good?” and the response from Hank is a bizarre sort of laughter—an airless exhalation of surprise, confusion and a realization that shit is so fucked up at this point, it’s actually kind of funny. It’s a marvelous little twisted comedic beat that brings us into the character’s perspective and acknowledges that “this shit is kind of crazy, right?” before we move on. The best part? It’s a beat that wasn’t in the script at all, but one that authentically emerged from Hoffman and Hawke being in the moment with these characters and their director.
It speaks to the level of comfort Lumet affords his cast, something exemplified nowhere better than the opening scene: A fully revealed moment of doggy style between Andy and Gina, with completely naked Hoffman and Tomei opening the film mid-coitus. It’s a bit of a shocker, particularly for Lumet, who wasn’t often one to feature sex, and for Hoffman. But Lumet fostered an environment to make it happen. “I rarely use sex as a big dramatic device. Here I thought it was critical because you have to understand right away that this is what drives him,” Lumet said. “But I don’t think Philip has ever conceived of himself in the nude fucking onscreen. It’s just not something that comes his way. So when we started blocking, Marisa hopped up on the bed, got on her hands and knees, slapped her ass and said, ‘Come on Philly, let’s go!’ I could kiss her. Because if Philip had any inhibitions, they were gone.”
While the anecdote speaks to the remarkable spirit and utter coolness of Tomei, it’s also the kind of thing that wouldn’t have been accomplished without Lumet’s directorial generosity, the comfort he allowed his actors and the extensive rehearsals that got them so in touch with their characters. And Lumet was right: The opening gives us a crucial understanding of what drives Andy, because otherwise he would just seem like a scumbag with no rhyme or reason. He and Gina are experiencing pure joy in that opening scene: Great sex in a luxurious suite in Rio, far away from the concerns of their ordinary lives—including his inability to get an erection at home, which leads to her insecurities and fling with Hank, who is such a hangdog layabout mess that he can screw like a jackrabbit all day long. It’s yet another laced-in comparison point for the brothers that fuels the entire movie. Opposites come into play as we watch their mutually assured destruction. Andy in his expensive suits with his slicked back hair, Hank always looking like he just rolled out of bed in his rumpled clothes. Lumet understood that every detail informs how we understand them, how we process them as two sides of the same coin that make the same decision for different (yet ultimately similar) reasons.
Not many directors have the fortune to go out on top. For many, even some of the greatest, there’s an understanding that they had final downswings, but which don’t tarnish their legacies. Lumet seemed like he might be heading in that same direction. The man who came out of the gate with 12 Angry Men and a run from that 1957 debut through at least 1982’s The Verdict that’s arguably the strongest stretch any director has ever had, hit a bit of a sputter into the ‘90s with films like A Stranger Among Us and his Gloria remake. He bounced back with 2006’s well-regarded Vin Diesel picture Find Me Guilty, but it was really Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead that shook people up and made us all remember what a titanic force Lumet still was. Between the new digital photography tool in his toolbox, a hungry screenwriter on their first script, a chaotic editing style, and his professional touch with actors, Lumet’s final film is a swan song that anyone would be lucky to have—and one that many of the greats never came close to achieving.
Currently based in Newark, Delaware, Mitchell Beaupre is the Senior Editor at Letterboxd, and a freelance film journalist for sites including The Film Stage, Paste Magazine, and Little White Lies. With every new movie they watch, they’re adding five more to their never-ending Letterboxd watchlist. You can find them on Twitter at @itismitchell.