Even though director Sidney Lumet has been working in the film industry since 1948, he really only came into his own during the 1970s, when he churned out a back-to-back string of cinematic classics, including “Serpico” (1973), “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974), “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975), “Network” (1976), and “Equus” (1977). Over the last several decades, he’s continued working, giving audiences a number of hits and some misses. Despite the differences in themes and settings, scratch beneath the surface, and you will find one common thread in all of this films: they all deal with the complex nature of human behavior. Lumet is particularly interested in what makes people “tick.” Nowhere is this more apparent than in his latest effort, “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.”
Written by Kelly Masterson, the film focuses on the Hanson brothers, Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke). The older brother, Andy, is cold and calculating; the younger is weak and spineless. Both are mired in debt. Even though Andy earns a six-figure salary, he clearly lives beyond his means, undoubtedly trying to keep his trophy wife, Gina (Marisa Tomei) in Pilates classes and Coco Chanel clothes. (Tomei looks great for being 44 years old.) Hank, who is divorced, also has a reach that exceeds his grasp. We never learn the particulars of his salary, but based on the condition of his apartment, he doesn’t make much, and yet, he insists on putting his daughter through an expensive private school. (On the conditions of his divorce, he has to pay child support for which he’s three months behind.)
Rather than get a second or third job or even cut back on his “expenses,” which include regular trips to a high rise living drug dealer and trips to Brazil, Andy hatches a foolproof plan: All he and Hank have to do is rob a “mom and pop” jewelry store. It’s a win-win, he says. He and his brother get the money in the safe and the jewelry in the store – an estimated take of about $600,000 – and the owners get the insurance money. What could go wrong? Just about everything, as a matter of fact. As one character says, and I paraphrase here, “The world is an evil place. Some people profit from it; others are destroyed by it.” The Hanson family falls into that latter group of people. “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” is essentially a modern morality tale about how bad actions lead to bad consequences.
I’ll confess to being a Lumet fan. He typically gets excellent performances from his cast, and chooses well-written, complex scripts. While watching his films, I always get the impression that he wants his audience to think; to be challenged. “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” continues this tradition, sort of. Seymour Hoffman is especially good as is Albert Finney, who plays his father. I’ve never been fond of Hawke, but here, he’s believable; tolerable. The script, on the other hand, I had some problems with it. First of all, it is non-linear. For instance, we watch the bank robbery, and then we go back three or four days. We catch up and go back again. It’s never confusing; just irritating. I kept wondering why the screenwriter had employed this “style.” It didn’t make the film edgy or any more interesting.
Second, I didn’t find the characters to be particularly sympathetic; therefore, I didn’t really care what happened to them. It felt to me that the overarching theme, however you interpret it – to me, it was how greed, anger and ignorance led to devastating conditions and consequences – overshadowed character development. (The title of the film, by the way, comes from an Irish toast, which is summed up at the beginning with “May you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you’re dead.”)
In short, viewing “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” is like watching a train wreck. You know what’s going to happen, but you’re still compelled to see it through. Despite its flaws, I, for the most part, “enjoyed” the film, and after hearing all of the critical praise it earned, I was glad to finally see it. However, it doesn’t rank as one of the Best of 2007 nor is it one of Lumet’s greatest hits.
Sidney Lumet (director) / Kelly Masterson (screenplay)
CAST: Philip Seymour Hoffman … Andrew ‘Andy’ Hanson
Ethan Hawke … Henry ‘Hank’ Hanson
Albert Finney … Charles Hanson
Marisa Tomei … Gina Hanson
Rosemary Harris … Nanette Hanson
Aleksa Palladino … Chris Lasorda
Michael Shannon … Dex