Before the Devil Knows You're Dead September 29, 2016
Dirty rotten scoundrels these men are, but they weren’t born that way — evidently there was a time in which they were sanguine, aware of their neuroses but not overpowered by them. But in the years that have gone by since their promising younger days, the effects of bad marriages, of failed attempts at parenting, of troubled childhoods, and of addiction, they’ve become possessed by desperation; they’d do just about anything to get out of their particular pits of despair.
These men, Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke), are brothers, but their resemblance has less to do with their set of shared genetics and more to do with the way they’re experiencing severely punishing midlife crises. While Andy’s recently married his mistress, Gina (Marisa Tomei), marital bliss is hardly a given, and the stresses of his corporate job, paired with a crippling cocaine habit, have left him both pressed for happiness and money. Hank, sinuously having an affair with Gina on the side, lived an idyllic a few years ago, but he’s divorced now, and his wife (Amy Ryan) is hateful and his teenage daughter is resentful.
Because they’re strapped for cash and are generally overcome with the desire to break out of the prisons of their lives, Andy despicably ropes Hank into a plan bound to fail and bound to break the already creaky ground they’re currently standing on. The plan, idiotic and unsightly, involves the two robbing a jewelry store run by their parents (Albert Finney, Rosemary Harris). They know the structure of the outfit, anyway, and no one’d suspect the children of businesspeople to stoop to thievery to victimize their own kin.
But, alas, unwise plotting and sad incompetence on the part of Andy and Hank designates the conspiracy as a failed criminal stab before it even begins. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is not a standard heist thriller but a psychological drama that just so happens to feature a heist and a couple of tactile scenes of suspense. Unraveling non-linearly, with its climax executed early on and its developing of characters separated and characterized by first-person focus, the film’s all-seeing, free-wheeling design, reminiscent of Pulp Fiction or The Killing, increases its depth.
Since we see several aspects of the movie’s characters at once, watching them at their most comprehensively affected immediately, we’re better able to understand what drives these people even before the first act commences. And that empathy, drawn from Kelly Masterson’s outstanding screenplay, is the very thing that signifies that the putrid characters at the center of Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead are crooked as a result of slow-in-the-making hopelessness, not out of inherent, two-dimensional cinematic deviousness.
So we manage to root for them, if only because their pathetic essences elicit a strange sort of sympathy. Hoffman, as passionately morose as ever, is superb as a man living as the shell of his formerly confident, powerful self, with Hawke convincing us that he really is the pitiful loser that is Hank. Best of all, though, is Finney, whose supporting performance turns out to be the most heartbreaking, most poignant thing about the film.
Remarkably, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead was the swan song of Sidney Lumet (Network, Running On Empty), among Hollywood’s most dependable and influential artists. While eighty-three during production and a recent recipient of the Academy’s Lifetime Achievement Award, the film proves to be one of his most interesting efforts. And what an exciting thing that is: like Luis Buñuel, the Spanish auteur who manufactured some of his best features in his later years, Lumet’s the kind of virtuoso to continue challenging himself despite having a reputation respectable enough to allow for retirement. I guess a true great never loses their mojo, and Lumet is unquestionably one of