The Devil: 1, Hoffman and Hawke: 0
When is a caper film not a caper film? When the ins and outs of the standard caper plot are not the focus, but instead are used to illustrate and emphasize a deeper, more fulfilling drama. That’s the trick Sidney Lumet has pulled off with Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, a brutal film about the tragic consequences of two brothers’ scheme to rob the family jewelry store. What lingers is not the robbery itself, but rather the smoking crater left by a detonating family relationship. It’s a dark and unpleasant yet powerful and engaging ride from which no one gets away clean.
Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke are Andy and Hank, the older and younger Hanson brothers. After a brief prelude setting up Andy’s seemingly simple dream of a better life with his wife Gina (Marisa Tomei), the story jumps forward quickly to the robbery gone sour. With the outcome of the heist out of the way, the remainder of the film jumps back and forth between the different character’s lives both before and after the robbery, showing us how the characters arrived at the point of tragedy and the ultimate consequences springing from it.
It’s a storytelling trick typical of a film hoping to disguise a weak or unoriginal plot, but Lumet has more interesting intentions for the narrative sleight of hand. By getting the robbery out of the way first, it is de-emphasized and the focus falls instead on the characters. The caper-gone-bad is simply the moment in each of the characters’ lives where their slow downward spiral picks up speed, lifetimes of bad decisions become irreversible and the characters’ doom becomes seemingly inevitable. The robbery is the point of no return. It’s a Greek tragedy disguised as a routine heist film and, as in any such tragedy, there is a sense of predestination as each character inexorably slides toward their fate.
The title comes from the Irish toast “Pray that you get to heaven a full hour before the devil knows you’re dead” and there’s a sense with all the characters that if they can just keep their intricate juggling acts going for a bit longer – if they can continue to put off the inevitable consequences of their actions – they’ll finally manage to pull themselves over the hump and they can rest easy, free from worry over all their past mistakes. However, whether it’s Andy staring at himself in the mirror as he vigorously screws his wife or Hank trying to explain to his ex why he can’t make the child support payments, there’s a fear and a desperation to these two men as if they know that time is running out for one or both of them.
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is really a character study and its success rests almost entirely on the performances of the terrific cast. Philip Seymour Hoffman is superb as the bitter, under-appreciated oldest son, fueled by resentment and self-loathing to achieve a measure of success he knows will never satisfy his father, his wife or himself. Enough is never enough, and he’s lived a lifetime beyond his means trying to find fulfillment. He’s been digging a hole for himself his entire life and it’s only a matter of time before it comes caving in on him.
Ethan Hawke has never been better than he is as the over-protected and over-indulged little brother. Hank is not a bad guy, but he’s never grown up. Having reached the age where irresponsibility is no longer charming, he’s certainly older but not any wiser. He means well, but gambling debts and child support payments spell his ruin. Still looking up to Andy, he’s an easy victim to his older brother’s psychological bullying and it only takes a little pressure to convince him the heist is a good idea. After all, they know where all the alarms are, their parents won’t even be in the store and there’s no need for guns. What could possibly go wrong? Only everything, of course.
Following the lead of Hoffman and Hawke, the supporting actors deliver their own richly complex performances. Andy’s wife Gina has a few secrets of her own and she could easily come across as deeply unsympathetic in the wrong hands. As portrayed by Marisa Tomei however, Gina has a humanity. She’s flawed but profoundly human and multi-layered. Albert Finney is also excellent as Andy and Hank’s father, Charles. In only a few scenes, he goes from a husband enjoying his golden years to a broken old man, perfectly conveying the bewilderment and regret of someone who realizes he can no longer atone for the lifetime of mistakes any normal person is guilty of.
In each case, the actor in question takes a difficult, potentially unsympathetic character and breathes life into him or her. The result is a spark that’s relatable if not completely agreeable. What’s more, all the actors allow you to feel what their characters are thinking. Motivations are almost always clear. Two of the characters reach a boiling point by the end of the film and their final actions are shocking. Looking back, you can see one meltdown coming from the character’s very first scene. His ultimate behavior is extreme, but it’s obvious his fuse is lit before the movie even begins. It’s only when he reaches the bitter realization that he will not beat the devil after all that he explodes, lashing out like a cornered animal.
The same can’t be said for the character who performs the final action of the film. It is perhaps completely justified, but it doesn’t have the same ring of truth to it and it doesn’t quite feel believable. If the film has any flaws, this is the biggest one.
Another smaller problem is the exaggerated cutting between different chronologies. 40 years ago, audiences may have needed to be held by the hand as they navigated a fractured narrative, but in a post-Pulp Fiction world, the overemphasis calls too much attention to the acrobatics and it’s simply distracting.
Even with its few imperfections, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is a vicious little gem of a film. Enhanced by an edgy, haunting, Fargo-esque score from Carter Burwell, it’s a cold, nervous sweat, ripe with the stench of desperation. It’s an emotional freight train driven downhill by finely observed characters, powerfully brought to life by a cast of superb actors. It also holds up as one of the best movies of 2007.
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. USA 2007. Directed by Sidney Lumet. Screenplay by Kelly Masterson. Cinematography by Ron Fortunato. Edited by Tom Swartout. Music score composed by Carter Burwell. Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Marisa Tomei, Albert Finney and Michael Shannon. 1 hour 56 minutes. MPAA rated R for a scene of strong graphic sexuality, nudity, violence, drug use and language. 4 stars (out of 5)
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