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)

31 Responses to “Review: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007) ****”

  1. Fantastic write-up of this movie, Craig. I liked this film a LOT. It was one of those marathon movie days when I saw this, and Diving Bell came right after it. And we all know my reaction to that.

    But I was very moved by BTDKYD. PSH was indeed awesome, in this (and everything else he did last year). And I thought Ethan Hawke was wonderful. A very ignored and underrated performance.

    This movie deserved much more attention than it got. I think too many people viewed it as a caper movie and not the character study/study of family dynamics that it was. And as an ensemble piece it was flawless. Sidney is the man for ensemble films.

  2. That’s quite an intense movie-going day, Ms. Flynn!

    I was a little cold toward it when I first saw it. **Spoilers** I just didn’t buy that Albert Finney would murder his own son. I bought PSH’s meltdown which a lot of people had a problem with…but the other wasn’t quite justified enough ***end spoilers****

    Nevertheless, after I found myself defending the movie to people who didn’t like it, it grew on me and this last time I watched it on DVD it was terrific.

    Quite an acting class.

  3. And seriously. PSH in BtDKYD, Savages and he friggin’ owned Charlie Wilson’s ass.

  4. Marvelous review, Craig. It felt like something you’ve been working towards with your comments about the film, and it was very well-stated with great clarity.

    Hoffman, not surprisingly and Hawke, a bit more surprisingly, are both excellent. I agree with all of your specific points, though my own position about the “final action” of a certain character in the film seems to back and forth. Finney and Tomei lend very strong support, though.

    It’s a finely-tuned melodrama/noir/caper film (existing as such in more or less that order, its being a caper film the least).

    I’d like to see this one again sometime soon. At the time (actually, times as I saw it twice over the course of seven weeks or so at different theates) I believed it to have perhaps Hoffman’s career-best performance and I’d like to see if I still kept that opinion with more time for it to grow or diminish.

    I’ll always remember after seeing it again at the arthouse in San Rafael an older fellow said to me that unlike No Country for Old Men, which he thought he could periodically check out again in the future, whereas Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead was just too much of a bitter, completely joyless and dreary slap in the face. It doesn’t pull any punches, to be sure.

  5. I liked that it didn’t pull any punches.

    And that relentless score was amazing and really added that much more to it.

  6. There’s an emotional remove to No Country that makes it easier to swallow. It’s probably the most honest and hard hitting Coen film, but there’s still that protective Coen veneer. For better or for worse (I say better) Devil is a raw twitching nerve.

    That’s not to say I think it’s a better movie than No Country, I’m just saying.

  7. Totally understand and agree, Craig.

    And, besides, No Country for Old Men is, despite being remarkably focused and tight, more allegorical and as you say has that literate Coen veneer.

    Before the Devil… is an intensely “personal” film, made at more of a ground level with arguably less artifice than the majority of films out there in general. I really like your description of it as a raw twitching nerve, it really is.

  8. I agree with most of your points, Craig, and you’ve certainly phrased them eloquently…yet, as you know, I don’t share your conclusion. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead left me, not a little cold, but entirely cold. I was never IN the movie, but always observing from outside. And from there, the performances are really good but ultimately too theatrical, the cutting back and forth in time struck me as gimmicky at best (though your justification of it makes me doubt myself), and I was rather pissed off at everyone calling it a “greek tragedy”, since the denouement seemed to rely on bad luck and stupidity rather than on an essential character flaw.

    But oh well, I’ve pissed on this movie enough. And I’ll admit: I might have to revisit it. I saw it on a three movie day, just after the magnificent I’m Not There, and with towering expectations due to the ecstatic reviews. Maybe it’ll help if I see it again, on a quiet evening, expecting it to disappoint.

  9. **Spoiler Alert**
    I can definitely see where you’re coming from Craig re Albert Finney’s father’s murderous actions. This is an extreme response. But I bought it. He was the least sympathetic character despite the winning moments of daily happiness between himself and his wife, and his general affability prior to her death. It primarily worked for me because at a metaphoric level the story operated as a Greek melodrama – where sons indirectly killing mother, and vengeful father killing son is very much in keeping – and because the children showed the effects of a tough and uncompromising father who, as you noted, they could never live up to. The extent to which they were bent out of shape by their family experiences (each displaying a different variety of consequence) – particularly Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character – spoke to the father’s (and likely collusive mother’s) toxicity. My ability to buy it was also served by the scene where the father argues with and slaps his oldest son after the funeral, and both the depth of the son’s distressed reaction in the car going home and his sudden return of composure following the meltdown. The traumatic strength of the hurt and the powerful coping response spoke to the magnitude of his father’s punitive toughness as they grew up, and the likelihood that these traits were still part of who he is. Together these elements helped me accept his ultimately extreme actions, amped up by grief and anger, in the context of learning what his sons had done to his beloved wife.
    **Spoiler Alert**

    And Hedwig, I thought every key character was flawed in a way that contributed to the unfolding tragedy – including the mother (choosing to shoot the robber in a context where the smart move was to cooperate).

    Fantastic review Craig.

  10. Fantastic review indeed sartre, and fantastic reply here by you too! *spolier alert*

    I definitely like this film myself, perhaps a bit less than you, Craig and Alison, but definitely much more than Hedwig. (but I know our Dutch friend is planning another viewing.so we will see………)
    That mother-shooting-the-robber was a stunning plot device! I thought the ending was a bit pat, with that hospital bed murder, (and as a result un-satisfactory, but this film was largely an amazing show of craftsmanship, especially by the performers. I must confess though, I didn’t like it as much the second time as I did the first……..but this is partially because all the surprises were gone………

  11. I couldn’t really get into Before You’re Dead. It had the pacing and plot trappings of a ’50s melodrama with the starkness of a ’70s thriller and none of the immediacy of either. The reason I never bought into the film, I think, is the dichotomy between overly melodramatic situation and the bland cinematography/set design. It felt too much like TV and too little like cinema. I guess if you’re going to try to sell me on an outrageous plot, I need interesting visuals to accompany them. It doesn’t help that I didn’t buy that final plot twist at all. That may not be it at all, but the film never engaged me and that’s my best explanation.

    Now that I’ve rained on the parade… I saw My Blueberry Nights last night and loved it. It’s a beautiful film through and through, the kind of contemplative film that doesn’t get made that often anymore. It’s hard to collect all my thoughts, but I was genuinely uplifted by the film. The happy ending and character development felt earned. For all the clichés, there’s a live, beating heart underneath the affecting music and imagery.

  12. Awesome review Craig, of a flawed, but endlessly fascinating movie that I just bought on DVD. I’m going to go watch it again right now.

  13. Great write-up, I agree. The mixed-up chronology didn’t bother me, I rather liked it, but I did not like all that strobe-effect cutting between certain scenes. That was distracting and seemed out of character for Lumet.
    *SPOILER ALERT
    For me, that final act has a lot of motivations behind it. Watching Andy’s downward spiral, I think his father starts out almost 100 percent rage, but the more he follows him around, just watching him lose control, I think there’s a profound sadness not only in his son, but for him. And when he Finney calls after Hank, does he want to stop him, help him, find out what happened, what? I’m not sure he knows, but he knows it’s all gone bad. His final murderous act, given the circumstances, is almost as much an act of compassion as it is of vengeance. Rage, shame, disappointment, guilt, grief, love, exhaustion…they’re all there. What’s going to happen to Andy otherwise? Life in prison for any of a variety of crimes is the best possible option. I think Finney’s character feels a lot of responsibility, as evidenced by the picnic table scene, for how his eldest son turned out, and he feels a similar responsibility in finishing the situation by taking it (quite literally) into his own hands. It will destroy him, yes, but I think he feels he’s already been destroyed, all that’s left is the housekeeping. Yes, perhaps he stains his own soul by his act, but he knows it’s far from clean already.

    Anyway, I bought it.

  14. I bought the ending more than I did some Albert Finney’s acting in the early scenes. He was the only element to me that didn’t consistently work in the picture. Good review, Craig.

  15. So I watched it again last night, and I think it holds up greatly. I was not as anxious as I was when I first saw it, and although my latest viewing didn’t offer the burst of gratification I felt when the movie was over, I actually think it was a more rewarding viewing overall. Knowing everything that happens in the movie also made me feel more relaxed, so I enjoyed it more than simply admiring it, which was the case when I first saw then film last year.

  16. I often get more out of a movie like this on a second viewing, Nick, when the intricacies of the plot are no longer dominating my senses and I focus more on the artistry of the entire effort. I love when a movie gets better on repeat viewings.

  17. Yes, me too, and “BTDKYD” is most definitely one of those films for me, and Craig’s review highlights many of the reasons as to why.

  18. Fascinating take on the motivations of Finney’s character jennybee.

  19. The funny thing Hedwig is that I totally see what you’re saying and to a lesser extent I shared a lot of your issues when I first saw it. It could be the circumstances you saw it, or it could be the movie just didn’t push the right button for you.

    Once I felt like I’d gotten into the character’s heads, it all started to click into place. I agree though that on this second viewing, there was definitely a tinge of theatricality to the acting, but it didn’t bother me since the emotions were believable and relatable.

    WJ, you’re not alone in disliking the style of the movie. There’s an amusing conversation with Armond White out there somewhere that basically takes a massive dump all over Lumet’s visual style. For me, since this was an emotional story more than a crime story, the visual directness worked.

    Jazzed you liked MBN though. It sounds like it hit you on a gut level which is how it hit me. I had a hard time intellectualizing it afterward, but that’s ok.

    Sartre, I absolutely see what you’re saying and maybe I just needed a couple of more direct clues that Finney’s character was capable of mudering his own son.

    Jennybee, part way into your comment a light bulb went off in my head and I could see where you were going and it made me smile. I really like your idea. ****spoiler**** There was no rage in Finney when he calculatedly murdered his son, there was more sadness. Sadness perhaps because ultimately the whole thing was his fault. Was he just putting Andy out of his misery? Very interesting ***end spoiler***

    Joel, Finney’s acting was definitely the least well disguised, yet it worked for me. It’s funny though, I can’t watch him anymore without thinking of Miller’s Crossing.

    Going back to something Alexander said, I don’t want to take anything away from PSH because he was amazing, but you expect him to be amazing and I wasn’t prepared for how good Ethan Hawke is. I’ve never really cared for him, but he was great here.

    Nick, the 2nd time the ending wasn’t quite the kick in the balls it was the first time…I remember leaving the theater feeling kind of stunned, not sure a believed what I’d seen, but I appreciated it.

  20. *****SPOILERS THROUGHOUT******

    I hope I don’t come off as an extremist. Dark and complicated as I am, I consider myself a firm realist rather than a nihilist.

    I loved BTDKYD almost beyond measure. Saw it twice in the theatre (would’ve have gone back at least once more but it wasn’t here long) and bought the DVD. Once I viewed it, it stayed comfortably in my Top 5 for the year – and never left.

    I hadn’t read any spoilers before I went but I knew even before the half way point that it was going to end like that. IT REALLY HAD TO…and I’m not sorry it did. That family obviously had particular problems long before the robbery. But with the mother’s murder (and the knowledge that the sons were in fact indirectly responsible for it) that family is forever doomed and disenfranchised. They will never be able to heal from those wounds. There is no way back.

    But the father knew that he would never be able to look his son in the eye again and would always be ceaselessly bitter and angry. He couldn’t live out the rest of his days with the person he loved. His life was effectively over (as far as he was concerned) so he had to extract some penance. The old eye for an eye thing. The entire film has a very heavy Shakespearean vibe anyway. So I totally bought it.

    I did feel some sympathy for PSH at times and I certainly didn’t hate him. But when he had that conversation with Ethan where he said, “It’s too bad it couldn’t have been him (the dad) instead of her,” I knew he was going down. The fact that PSH could talk about his own father like that was fairly revealing.

    I knew when Albert Finney had that discussion with PSH outside about not being the perfect father (and then got angry later and slapped his son across the face), that there had always been tension and trouble in that relationship.

    Both of those boys were f ‘ed up. PSH was greedy, self centred, manipulative. Totally out for himself. Ethan was weak. You could see that Ethan had been bullied by PSH his entire life. Just like the father had likely bullied PSH.

    I thought that the execution was brilliant. Kelly Masterson’s screenplay was so perceptive and sharp. The twisting timelines didn’t detract from the sardonic bite or the comprehension at all. When I watched the extras and heard Mr. Lumet say the film was a melodrama (and changed the characters to brothers), that totally makes sense in terms of the tone. But no Oscar nods for either the writer or director.

    THEY WERE ROBBED.

    When I finally watched the film at home (buried under all the DVDs that I’d purchased over the months), the scene that really got to me was the one near the end where PSH threatens to kill Ethan (and almost does).Then Ethan says, “Go on. Kill me. Do it. You’d be doing me a favour.” He’s so resigned. He’s always been belittled by his brother. Ethan tries to be amiable and pleasant and not upset other people. He’s always felt like a failure and now their grand scheme has collapsed. He has nothing left. PSH has always made him feel worthless and stupid so it may as well be over. His wasted life has just hit rock bottom.

    I thought it was fairly bleak but that didn’t bother me. The writing, the acting and the direction were all brilliant and you can’t go wrong with an artistic enterprise that strong.

    I’ve always been a sucker for these films where there’s only tiny little flaw and it just gets larger and larger and then the whole thing goes. Just like dominos.

    Just like A SIMPLE PLAN (which I also enjoyed a great deal), “How do you get three people to keep a secret? Make sure two of them are dead.”

    The only person that I really take issue with is Marisa Tomei. First of all, if you’re going to play an overly sexy role with some verve, you’d better look the part. All that whining and pouting she did could not be described as anything realistically sexy or sensual. She’s no Lena Olin. I thought she was horrifically bad. I’ve never thought that she had any talent whatsoever anyway.

    But fortunately she wasn’t in it enough to ruin it.

    I’d definitely give BTDKYD four stars out of five. Thought it was quite the barn burner.

  21. Whether one agrees or disagrees with you Miranda, one must admit that this essay was truly magisterial. Bravo!

  22. You’re very kind, Sam.

    Thank you…

  23. Really enjoyed your perceptive and passionate analysis Miranda. But I can’t agree with your dismissal of Tomei’s performance. It was the least fleshed out character in the script but she took it and created a well-rounded one, and her dynamic with Andy was critical to understanding his personality. The opening sequence between them gives us so much crucial information. And I thought Gina was one of the year’s sexiest portrayals.

  24. Jennybee and Sartre, I agree with a great deal with both of your excellent summaries of analysis regarding Finney’s final act in the film. I’m particularly partial to the idea that he felt disgraced as a man/father and he probably believed that, at that point, allowing his son to go through the bitter hell of losing his job (which he was in the process of doing anyway as the film chronicles), the lamentations of Tomei’s character and doubtless prison time, this was actually the most merciful thing he had ever done for his son (warped thinking, but it feels reinforced by the Finney-Hoffman dialogue wherein Finney confesses that he knows he’s generally been a lousy father and he sees why Hoffman resents him). Like so many guys, and perhaps especially at that age, at that point, their wife typically means something close to the entire world and I could see him possibly killing himself moments after killing Hoffman (something that the nearly blinding white light of that long hallway arguably points to at the very end, as he bravely walks down it and into the light).

    Also… I thought Marisa Tomei was devastatingly sexy. Um, yeah.

  25. I think the idea of the father taking his own life (even metaphorically) intriguing. But it doesn’t quite ring true for me. In large part because he stages the killing in a way that sees him walk away (innocently). And allows for the possibility of the heart failure being judged a consequence of his son’s perilous state rather than murder. It was very calculated, and I recall (perhaps mistakenly) there being some subtle evidence of malice in his demeanor.

  26. I agree on those points, Sartre, but I do think it’s possible despite the father’s attempts to at least somewhat methodically set the murder up so as to avoid suspicion of himself, and sort of illustrates how the Hoffman character’s subterfuge in dealing with the aftermath of his own mother’s killing mirrors/is mirrored by his father. There’s definitely malice and a sense of satisfaction on the father’s part as he murders his son, though… I do think that the hallway walk at the end into the light may just be a metaphoric death/soul cleansing, and is appropriately read as such, especially since the film concludes then and there.

  27. I preferred Find Me Guilty, but that might just be me.

  28. Miranda, I like your darker appreciation of BtDKYD very much even if I disagree with your estimation of MT’s sexiness. As Sartre said, it was the most underwritten part, besides that of the mother, and she gave life to it.

    Jeff, I’ve never watched Find Me Guilty. I bought into the marketing and assumed it was another shitty Vin Diesel comedy, despite Lumet’s direction. I’ve since seen the error of my ways, but haven’t gotten around to catching it.

  29. Not only was Tomei’s part underwritten but it was also borderline one-dimensional (or are those one and the same?) and she found many shades in it (doubtless with help and encouragement from Lumet).

    I’m actually quite the fan of Find Me Guilty. Vin Diesel gives a wholly convincing performance and it features some excellent character actors from the northeast region. It’s Lumet’s most Brechtian outing since Dog Day Afternoon. It’s also one of my favorite examinations of ennui in the past few years. I would say between it and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Lumet’s “comeback” cannot be considered some kind of fluke.

  30. Just have to pop in late and say this is an outstanding review, Craig. You nailed everything about it.

    “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.”

    Indeed, and it’s the one that unfortunately remained me with and prevented me from making this a Top 10 last year. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe the characters would act in that way (people are unpredictable as much as we hope they aren’t), but I just didn’t like the pacing of it. It felt rushed or out of sync with what happened beforehand. Plus I just thought that shootout was predictable. Yeah, I just realized I said people were unpredictable…

    On a separate note, I remember being impressed by the long tracking shot in the drug dealer’s apartment. Somehow I was in suspense for a scene that I don’t think was meant to be suspenseful.

    One things for sure – the acting is the strongest aspect of the whole production.

  31. ***** Ending Spoiler *****

    The dad walkway scene is a metaphor. Him taking his own life and killing his son was to protect his younger son and the remaining family members (daughter and grand kids) from knowing what happened.

    For him, out of shame and rage but from the surviving family, his suicide was an act of sorrow for losing his son and wife.

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