Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
Some filmmakers produce their greatest work in their youth and then fizzle with age. Others are consistently great, producing triumph after triumph until the end of their lives. Sidney Lumet belongs in the latter camp. The 83-year-old director of 12 Angry Men, Network and Dog Day Afternoon returns with Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, a sleeker, slimmer film than he’s done in some time, but very possibly his strongest work in decades.
Deriving its title from the Irish toast, “May you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you're dead,” the film centers around two brothers, Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the payroll manager for a large New York real-estate firm, and Hank (Ethan Hawke) who is also employed at the firm but in a far more menial capacity. Andy is the responsible and successful one, Hank the good-for-nothing screw-up. Loser or not, Hank is having an illicit affair with his brother’s trophy wife, Gina (Marisa Tomei), who spends the first half of the film in various states of undress.
The brothers both find themselves in desperate need of cash. Andy, who is afraid of losing Gina if he doesn’t improve their standard of living, has been embezzling thousands of dollars from the company as well as leading a double life at a high class, 21st century opium den. But the powers that be are growing suspicious and sniffing around. Hank is a henpecked divorcee who is months behind on his child support and in danger of losing the rights to see his increasingly hostile, pre-teen daughter.
Andy comes up with the perfect, victimless solution to all their troubles: Hank will rob a “mom and pop” jewelry store — their own mom and pop’s (Albert Finney and Rosemary Harris) jewelry store. Though Hank protests at first, we know he will do it — what other choice does he have? Andy’s idea seems foolproof enough. They rob the store on a weekend when their parents aren’t even there and since they know the alarm codes and safe combinations, they can be in and out without a hitch. Insurance covers their parents’ losses and they sell the jewelry on the black market. What could go wrong?
But, of course, everything goes wrong. In fact, it goes so horribly awry that everything the brothers do to buy time or fix the botched job only makes it worse. As events spiral out of control, we watch their relationship, already frayed by unresolved resentment and sibling rivalry, transform into something we could never possibly predict, leading to a shocking and inconceivable conclusion.
The plot of Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is telegraphed in out-of-sequence, chaptered episodes that jump backwards and forwards in time. Some of the same events that lead up to the bungled robbery, as well as those that follow it, are examined from different points of view. Although the film employs a gratingly annoying sound and editing effect to signal the transitions, the overall flow of the narrative is completely lucid. If anything, we comprehend even more, given that we’re allowed to experience events often and from different perspectives.
Lumet’s camerawork is simplistic, pared down, anything but flashy. He is confident in finding the perfect shot and sticking with it, often for the length of an entire scene. As audacious as it is unsophisticated, this choice creates an insidious sense of dread and acute, brooding claustrophobia.
Every principle in this film has either won or been nominated for an Academy Award. Hoffman is electrifying (when isn’t he?), drawing on a stronger, darker side of his persona. Hawke plays against type, convincingly portraying a weak and cowardly buffoon. He obliterates the Darwinian model of evolution, revealing that the one who survives is not necessarily the strongest, but the one who runs away the fastest.
You cannot watch Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead without thinking of Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan, or the Coen Bro’s masterpiece, Fargo. Lumet even uses Coen composer Carter Burwell to ensure the two films are identified as spiritual kin. Playwright and first-time screenwriter Kelly Masterson’s script boils with palpable tension and genuine suspense. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is more akin to Greek or Shakespearian tragedy than modern filmmaking, exploring urban malaise and family dysfunction with tools as timeless as they are effective. It is a film that peels back the layers of the human psyche like onionskin, examining misery at the cellular level. It is not interested in resolutions, only motivations. Evil, it turns out, lurks close-by, often where we least expect it.