Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
United States, 2007
U.S. Release Date:
R (Violence, Profanity, Nudity, Sexual Situations)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio:
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, Marisa Tomei, Rosemary Harris, Brian F. O'Byrne
An Irish toast goes "May you be in heaven half an hour... before the devil knows you're dead," and it's from this source that the latest movie by 83-year-old veteran director Sidney Lumet derives its name. With films like Serpico,Q&A, and Night Falls on Manhattan on his resume, Lumet has gained a reputation as a director who enjoys demythicizing the boys in blue. The role of cops in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is incidental, however - this is a plot-heavy thriller that looks at crime and its personal (and unintended) consequences.
Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has come up with the perfect crime: rob the jewelry store owned and operated by his parents, Charles (Albert Finney) and Nanette (Rosemary Harris). The $600,000 stash is fully insured, so Charles and Nannette won't lose anything. Andy and his accomplice, younger brother Hank (Ethan Hawke), will each walk away with $60,000 after fencing the merchandise. It seems like a flawless scheme until Hank pulls in an outsider. Instead of using a fake gun, Bobby (Brian F. O'Byrne) brings a real one to the party. And it turns out that Nanette also has a hidden firearm in the store. The resulting bloodbath leaves two dead and three badly shaken. Two of them are struggling with their consciences even as they fight over the same woman: Gina (Marisa Tomei), whom Andy has married and with whom Hank is having an affair.
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is told in a distinctly non-chronological fashion, eschewing linear storytelling in favor of a method that flashes forward and backward and presents certain events from multiple viewpoints. While this approach lends a freshness to the early scenes, it quickly becomes tiresome, especially because there's no reason to present events this way except that it's unconventional. The inherent problem is that the viewer becomes hyperaware of how the plot is being revealed; the seams are all on display.
At the film's core lies a simple question: how does someone cope with being the inadvertent architect of a parent's death? Both brothers' lives are spinning out of control and this event only exacerbates matters. The money obtained from the robbery would have gotten them back on track, but not only do they not have the money, they have lost a mother as well, and she has died because unexpected elements entered an equation. There are plenty of contrivances littered throughout Kelly Masterson's screenplay, but none of them diminish the fascination we develop with this lurid melodrama. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is enjoyable even if it's far from airtight.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is in fine form as a man teetering on the edge. It's never clear exactly what Andy's motives for the robbery are - does he need the money so he and his wife can move to Brazil and start over or is the loot intended to feed his drug habit? Hoffman's performance here echoes what he did in 2003's Owning Mahowny. It's a single-minded, balls-to-the-wall portrayal that's riveting. Ethan Hawke exists primarily in Hoffman's shadow, but manages to hold his own. Hawke isn't great here, but he's good enough to make us interested in the character. Marisa Tomei shows how important reaction shots are. For the most part, she doesn't have a lot to do (although she easily shows more flesh here than in any of her previous roles), but her low-key interaction with the other actors enhances their performances without diminishing hers. (Watch her expressions during Andy's in-car meltdown.) Albert Finney is underused. The movie tries to make Charles the third leg in the triangle of perspectives (Andy and Hank being the other two), but Finney's part is underwritten and there's not a lot he can do by way of acting to repair the flaw.
The family dynamic becomes a crucial aspect of Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. Although it starts as a crime story stepped in bitter irony, it turns into a drama about fathers and sons and brothers and the issues and rancor and jealousy that can exist in those relationships. Andy is the most interesting character, Hank is the most complicated, and Charles is the most driven. In fact, Charles' scenes allow Before the Devil Knows You're Dead to stray into the revenge/vigilante territory that has recently been mined by films such as The Brave One and Reservation Road. This is not classic Sidney Lumet, but it's ample evidence that after more than 40 years working in this business, the director is still capable of crafting an entertaining and thought provoking motion picture.