Sidney Lumet‘s last film, "Find Me Guilty," trickled in and back out of theaters last year before most had a chance to even notice that it starred Vin Diesel… with hair! A box office flop, the affable mafia courtroom comedy did have its critical defenders, though others greeted it with a shrug â€” fine, but nothing on Lumet’s ’70s glory days. But Lumet’s latest, the bleak thriller "Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead," has no such indifference to overcome; amidst the overwhelming acclaim (the strength of which we’re a bit surprised by â€” our own review from NYFF is here) are mentions of it being one of the year’s highlights and one of Lumet’s best in years. At the Village Voice, J. Hoberman deems it "less Sidney Lumet’s comeback than his resurrection…a violent family melodrama that is his strongest movie in at least two decades." "[I]n the context of the glitzy, ADD-edited, steroidally pumped spirit of the modern megaplex thriller, that no-frills Lumet style, revived â€” triumphantly â€” in his mesmerizing new crime drama, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, looks like poetry after all" writes Owen Gleiberman at Entertainment Weekly. A.O. Scott at the New York Times calls out the acting, particularly the greatness that is Philip Seymour Hoffman: "while never for a moment soliciting our empathy, Mr. Hoffman makes us care about this man, the scale of whose ethical failures gives him a kind of negative grandeur." He "is huge but mesmerizing" adds David Edelstein at New York. "[A]s Hoffman comes to a boil under Lumetâ€™s sympathetic gaze, the movie transcends melodrama. The horror seems rooted in an ancient woe."
At Slate, Dana Stevens ties "Devil" back to Lumet’s authoritative heist-gone-wrong work "Dog Day Afternoon": "it revisits that movie’s claustrophobic suspense and deep compassion for its charactersâ€”abject, grasping everymen who truly believe they’re only one act of violence away from everything they’ve ever wanted." David Denby at the New Yorker, on the other hand, is entertained but unmoved by the heightened performances: "We can enjoy the mayhem without feeling sorry for any of them." "Ultimately, the film is just a smart caper picture with some good performances," writes Noel Murray at the AV Club, "but at times it’s very smart, and Hoffman’s performance in particular is one of the most natural and unexpectedly affecting that he’s given in years."
Dissenters: Andrew Sarris at the New York Observer is put off by "Devil"’s nihilism: "nihilism has never been my strong suit in the cinema, though I imagine younger cultists of a certain type can never get enough of it." Andrew O’Hehir at Salon writes:
For me at least, the evident strengths and laudable intentions of "Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead" (and even the appeal of Marisa Tomei in her undies) are overwhelmed by an implausible plot verging on unintentional comedy and a panoply of Noo Yawk dirt-bag supporting characters who might’ve seemed awkward on a 1993 episode of "NYPD Blue." In an era that’s brought us the dense dialogue and ambiguous characterizations of "The Wire" and "The Sopranos," this movie (like almost all Lumet films, truth be told) has the subtlety and moral complexity of a demolition derby.
And for Armond White at the New York Press: "Lumet and Masterson make it so easy to be judgmental about sub-mental characters. This moral failure goes past condescension into obnoxious, cynical bemusement… Before the Devil is pathetic, a Hollywood tragedy."