Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (USA; 117 min.)


directed by: Sidney Lumet
starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Marisa Tomei, Albert Finney, Rosemary Harris, Brian F. O’Byrne
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
 

Bruce says: "A few weeks ago the producer of BELLA, an independent film that opened at the same time as BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOW YOU’RE DEAD, sent out an email chain letter that was a rant against Lumet’s film, a case of sour grapes due to the fact that Lumet’s film received good reviews from the critics. BELLA did not. Producer Sean Wolfington urged the public to go to the Internet and give his film a high rating and give BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD a low rating to dismiss it as a film that 'blows to smithereens' the 'core ideals that hold a family together.' Would Wolfington be as critical of Euripides’ 'Electra', one of the cornerstones of Greek tragedy? In 'Electra' Agememnon barters his daughter Iphigeneia to retain his power and, as a result, is killed by his wife Clytemnestra. Their son Orestes kills his mother and her lover for revenge with the help of his sister Electra. That scenario changes slightly in BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD but the similarities are striking. Distasteful characters and dastardly deeds have always been the centerpiece of great art. Look at the works of Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill and notice how they skewer misconstrued notions of family values. Bombasting a film because it lacks 'core ideals' seems childish and naïve.

"Philip Seymour Hoffman is nothing short of magnificent. He plays Andy, a man who destroys his family not out of malevolence but out of weakness. He is in desperate need of money to feed a drug habit. When he realizes his younger brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) also is in dire straits financially he concocts a scheme to rob their parents’ small jewelry story in a Bronx mall. It’s foolproof. Hank initially balks but buckles under Andy’s intimidating remarks like 'the store is insured in case your faggoty little conscience bothers you.' Hank, never one to be successful at much of anything, enlists the help of a thug named Bobby (Brian F. O’Byrne). Bad idea. Suddenly there are a couple of corpses. The botched robbery has a domino effect as it triggers innumerable bad choices from every direction within the family.

"As the film opens Andy is in the throes of a lively sexual romp with his wife Gina (Marisa Tomei) in a Brazilian hotel. As post-coital bliss settles in he says, 'God, I’d love to live like this.' Back home, the stress of life in Manhattan destroys his libido. Gina pointedly remarks 'Another strike out in bed.' Andy retaliates 'You’re a lousy cook and a lousy lay.' Nice people. Soon we learn that Gina has learned to fulfill her sexual needs elsewhere. Hank battles with his ex-wife over child support and with his daughter who is unforgiving when he breaks his promises.

"The police remain clueless about the robbery and murder, but the boys’ father Charles (Albert Finney) discovers who is behind the crime when he visits a well-known fence who holds some important information. Charles is determined to even the score as he follows his sons to the building where Andy’s drug dealer lives. Two subsequent scenes are shocking; however, by this time the viewer is well aware that this is a story that cannot end happily.

"Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney and Marisa Tomei are perfect in their roles. With fluid efficiency Lumet examines sibling rivalry and the contentious relationships between father and sons. Lumet's choices throughout the film are, on the whole, superb. On the slightly negative side, the use of flash editing seems out of place in the context of the film, and some of the sundrenched cinematography was not particularly to my liking. 4.5 cats"

 
Jay says: "BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD knows every trick in the book. It flashes forward and back, shows us different sides to several scenes, and builds tension up for small things so well that the big things catch the audience almost completely off guard. The quick description of the story may not sound like much, but the execution is close to dead-perfect.

"That story has two brothers - Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke) - hatching a plan to rob their parents' jewelry store. The way they figure it, everything is insured and having worked there as teenagers, they know the place so well that they can control the situation and nobody will get hurt. Things don't go as planned, though, and the aftermath creates all sorts of tensions among the family, even if nobody knows the whole story.

"The robbery is the second scene in the movie before we jump back in time a few days to see how Hank and Andy each arrived at that point. It's hard to really know at what point the decision the point to tell the story out of chronological order was made just by watching the film, but writer Kelly Masterson and veteran director Sidney Lumet certainly make it feel like this is the only way it could be done. It's a bit of a gimmick, of course, but the point of the device is seldom to hide information or make the audience re-examine the same moment with new information. That happens, of course, but just as often revisiting a scene mainly seems to be to allow the audience to fix events in the film's timeline. The greatest benefit, though, is in how it allows us to concentrate on Andy, Hank, or their father Charles (Albert Finney) individually; we get a good look at what each is doing or thinking without having to cut away because what someone else is up to at that moment is also important.

"For all that Lumet is cutting the film together a bit unconventionally on the large scale, he's fairly old-school within any given segment. The robbery segment, for instance, is a great little mini-movie on its own: It gives us just enough time to get familiar with the geography of the store and parking lot without doing anything so obvious as a guided tour, works some tension with the clash of the masked robber and the old woman (Rosemary Harris), and ends on a nice, decisive bit of action. There's a clear point to each segment, and very little wasted time during any. Even the opening of the film, which might just seem like an excuse for some nice skin, does a nice job of establishing that these characters have known happiness and are trying to get back there.

"What's especially impressive is how the film stays on target despite the many different directions Masterson and Lumet potentially have to go off on tangents. There's drug dealers, whether or not to take someone off life support, an audit of the real estate company where Andy and Hank work, and other things that could have potentially wound up dominating the film. Everything winds up tying back into the basic story of how the aftermath of the robbery ripping the family apart. It's a tight little thriller even though a lot is going on.

"The filmmakers have a very nice cast working for them. Philip Seymour Hoffman is icy as Andy, but he's also desperate, and it's a blast to watch how the latter starts to take over as the film goes along. Hoffman somehow manages to keep Andy from becoming a simple villain, despite making him pretty scummy. Ethan Hawke can barely compete as the mostly sad-sack brother, although that's partly the point: Hank's just as desperate, and it's why Andy can lead him around. Albert Finney makes Charles a destroyed bear of a man, not quite brimming with rage but with no shortage, either. Marisa Tomei gives what may be her best performance in years as Andy's wife; she makes her beauty intimidating without being overtly demanding.

"The best recommendation I can give for this movie as a thriller, though, is that there's always the sense that it can go in any direction. I'm not talking about twists, just saying that Masterson and Lumet present us with situations where their characters could be pushed in several directions, and keep doing so almost non-stop for two hours.

"Seen 1 January 2008 at the The Somerville Theatre #2 (first/second-run) 5 cats"