Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
Director : Sidney Lumet
Screenplay : Kelly Masterson
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2007
Stars : Philip Seymour Hoffman (Andy), Ethan Hawke (Hank), Albert Finney (Charles), Marisa Tomei (Gina), Rosemary Harris (Nanette), Aleksa Palladino (Chris), Michael Shannon (Dex), Amy Ryan (Martha), Brian F. O'Byrne (Bobby), Blaine Horton (Justin), Arija Bareikis (Katherine), Leonardo Cimino (William), Lee Wilkof (Jake)
The unwieldy title of Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, Sidney Lumet's relentless grinder of a melodramatic thriller, comes from an Irish blessing that sounds more like a curse: “may you be in heaven half an hour … before the devil knows you're dead.” The idea is to wish someone a speedy trip to the better part of the afterlife, but the subtext suggests constant pursuit by darker forces, which may be why first-time screenwriter Kelly Masterson chose it for his title: His characters are not just haunted by their darker impulses--greed, avarice, and at times general stupidity--but cursed by them. This is a film about the damned.
Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke play two very different brothers who get involved in a “victimless crime”: the robbery of a jewelry store that happens to be owned by their parents (Albert Finney and Rosemary Harris). Hoffman's Andy is the older, larger, and seemingly more controlled sibling (although, as we will quickly see, appearances are always deceiving). He makes a lot of money as a commercial real estate broker, has a beautiful wife (Marisa Tomei) with whom he has recently reignited his marriage with a sex-filled trip to Rio, and wears expensive-looking suits and slicked hair. Hawke's Hank, on the other hand, is a deadbeat dad who is constantly struggling to make ends beat, berated by his vicious ex-wife (Amy Ryan), and unable to come up with the money to pay for his daughter's field trip to The Lion King. Hank is the very definition of pathetic, but then again, so is Andy, as we gradually learn that his controlled persona is a crumbling façade masking drug addiction and embezzlement just waiting to be discovered.
Masterson's screenplay ably jumbles the chronology of the story, giving us bits and pieces and then rewinding to retell crucial parts of the story from different characters' perspectives. At the beginning all we know is that the jewelry store heist goes terribly, horribly wrong, with a masked gunman dead, an old woman tending the store critically injured, and Hank in a ferocious panic. The why's and how's are slowly filled in as we get the back stories, and as the pieces start fitting together, we realize that we're watching the construction of a downfall--not of just one character, but an entire family whose years of repression and disillusionment combusts, with the botched heist lighting the fuse.
If that sounds pretty grim, it is, but it's also undeniably enthralling. At 83 years of age, Sidney Lumet has been out of the limelight for a long time, his last arguably great film being 1982's The Verdict. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead recalls his terrific work in the 1970s, when he directed powerhouse performances in gritty morality tales of institutional and personal corruption like Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and Network (1976). Of course, during that time he also directed the film version of Peter Schaeffer's psychosexual stageplay Equus (1977), the very definition of overpitched melodrama, which we can see at times in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. The film's primary mode of expression is the grimace, and each character is defined by how he does it: Andy scowls with barely repressed rage, Hank squirms like a frightened child, and Charles (their father) registers a mask of horrified confusion.
Sometimes it feels like too much, but then again, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is an exercise in piling it on, with each plot twist all but guaranteeing the absolute damnation of its struggling characters, regardless of how hard they struggle against their mistakes (and oh how they struggle). The film's knockout blow is delivered in a crucial line of dialogue by a seedy jewelry dealer who knows both Andy and his father, and it could play as a summation of Lumet's entire career: “The world is an evil place,” he says. “Some people profit from it, others are destroyed by it.” In Before the Devil Know You're Dead, even those who walk out alive have been destroyed.
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
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