Dear Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,
In the mid-1990s it became apparent that there would be a growing schism between the nature of the thrillers and dramas of yesteryear and their progeny in years to come. In the past, these films were staged and photographed in a way that would wring tension and emotion out of simple, personal situations. Characters and their actions served as the backbone of storytelling in these films. Newer films, though, those which grew out of the impact of Pulp Fiction and The Usual Suspects, relied on narrative trickery to create tension, surprise and interest. These films had a quirk and a nature all of their own, but the purity of form in these older films was lost in this rush to discover new ways to create drama through manipulation of the narrative structure.
If anyone could have created an amalgamation of these two styles which would serve as a throw back to the older form and a master example of the newer, it would have been your director, Sidney Lumet. He made you into the kind of film that serves as a template for style, story, and narrative flare. The story of a pair of brothers whose failed robbery attempt results in the death of their mother is both masterfully shot and acted, while at the same time gaining depth from the puzzle-like structure of its story.
It is one thing to begin at the end and work to the beginning, or to follow three chapters of the story in an interconnected fashion, but you work a kind of magic that is deeper and more complex. In your story, flashbacks and flash-forwards occur at the moments in which they will most serve to subvert or deepen our understandings of the plot thus far. In this way, there is no forward or backward motion, just the inexorable movement of story.
And your story alone could have served as a strong base for a powerful thriller. The tale of two brothers with dreams bigger than their means who seek to perform a “victimless” robbery of their parents’ jewelry store has a kind of tragic, Shakespearean momentum to it. One moment after another goes wrong, and each decision that brings them deeper into their lies and crimes serves to likewise pull them towards their immutable destinies.
The acting of everyone involved brings to this tragic story a touch of humanity and empathy which imparts an emotional engine to the downward momentum. There is a feeling of desperation within the two brothers that only grows more pronounced as time goes on. Their father, too, lends a kind of righteous yet seemingly impotent fury which further complicates and propels the story towards its tragic climax.
This momentum of story, this almost Godlike hand driving the action forward, is given added power by the assured direction of one of the masters of old-school thrillers, Sidney Lumet. His eye for detail in both your aesthetic and human details lends you a special aura which elevates proceeding. The atmosphere of every scene seethes with the very emotions of the characters involved. Dimly lit bars glow with the well-presented immorality of sinister plans. Offices and outdoor scenes burn with a light that is just a bit too bright, too intensely lighted, as though the world itself seeks to reveal the ugly, buried truths of your characters’ lives.
There are those who say that the re-arranging of a standard narrative timeline is nothing but a cheep way to create emotion and feeling that the story does not earn. In many cases, these people may be right. You, though, are a fine example of how that which could be a crutch can instead be an enhancement. It is a shame that we have lost your director, when you stand as such a clear indication that he never lost that which many in his line of work will never have.
With profound sadness at the skill you so clearly represent which has been lost,
Brian J. Roan