Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)

Genre: Crime Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 57 min.

Release Date: December 7th, 2007 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Sidney Lumet Actors: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, Marisa Tomei, Michael Shannon, Amy Ryan, Aleksa Palladino, Sarah Livingston, Rosemary Harris, Arija Bareikis

 


 

D

ark, depressing, cynical, and supremely well acted, “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” is a film bound to either impress or disgust. A self-destructive spiral toward insanity in the same vein as “Requiem for a Dream” or even “Scarface,” “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” is utterly thrilling all the way to the end. It’s only letdown might be the climax, which, though powerful and shocking, leaves a little to be desired. Still, the remarkable turns by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Marissa Tomei, and Ethan Hawke make this rare murder/mystery heist film one of the more underrated and unconventional projects of 2007.

Strapped for cash, Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) hatches a plan to rob a jewelry store. The catch? It’s owned by his mother and father. Assuming that his parents will simply collect the insurance money, leaving Andy to sell the jewelry, he convinces his younger brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) to help him with the heist. When he agrees to the dastardly deed – since he too is in trouble with funds (struggling to pay for child support while working at the same miserly company as Andy) – Hank only has left to hire a third accomplice to actually go through with the robbery, as he can’t bring himself to hold up the store alone. Of course, nothing goes as planned, and the clerk who was supposed to be working the day of the robbery winds up being mom herself. Additionally, the third man is killed during the botched burglary, forcing the two brothers to deal with covering up evidence as well as overcoming immeasurable guilt.

Typically, heist movies find the lead characters out to prove that they can accomplish the task, itching for revenge, or in need of some quick dough. Here, the film doesn’t focus so much on the motivations or the robbery itself, but on the aftermath. Escalating misfortunes become a vehicle to complicate Andy and Hank’s predicament from one tragic coincidence to the next. In fact, the robbery takes place in the opening few scenes, seemingly giving away the conclusion. But as the film tracks backward to fill audiences in on prior events, before then displaying horrifying miscalculations by the antiheroes, it’s clear that the bungled heist is just the very beginning.

Covering the cause and effect of every mistake that Andy and Hank make, “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” highlights intricate storytelling right alongside exceptional character development. Hoffman again shows great energy in his role, marking a stunning third performance this year alone that deserves Academy Award attention (the other two being “Charlie Wilson’s War” and “The Savages”). His shocking descent into madness is highly emotional, culminating in an inspired final act. Hawke also does a fine job as the guilt-ridden associate, who is only marginally more innocent than Andy (but equally despicable nonetheless). In a film with no true heroes, even Marissa Tomei’s Gina is marred with unfaithfulness – and a number of nude scenes that one could wager was staged largely to discredit her character’s virtuousness.

Each time the film moves backwards, a flashy editing technique is used to signify the shift in time. Devices such as this create uniqueness, but are so unusual that the viewer is taken out of what could have otherwise been a comfortable suspension of disbelief. On top of that, while many of the clues left for viewers in previous scenes are solved by these flashbacks, many of them are wholly trivial. Messing with the timeline for the sake of artistry might have been entirely forgivable if it weren’t for the additional, greater downfall of the finale, which involves more than a few predictable events – including the vengeful father and an alarmingly irresolute finish for Hank. Some pictures leave assumptions up to the audience, but here there are a few too many conclusions that can be drawn – and in a project like this, it’s best to give a slightly narrower margin for the imagination or for interpretation. Still, it’s a perfectly disturbing, morbid little thriller, sharply directed by veteran Sydney Lumet (“Serpico,” “Network,” “Dog Day Afternoon”).

– Mike Massie

  • 8/10