Movie Review: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
By: T.O. Lawrence
To whomever is shipping the Oscars: Give regards to the Academy and just send the box of trophies to the cast of Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead along with most of the Golden Globes, those MTV popcorn things and a couple of Grammys just to be safe. There is no way to overstate the tremendous performances in this film. And though director Sydney Lumet doesn’t really do anything new, he conducts the camera beautifully, giving the audience a fantastic vantage point from which to witness the brilliance of the actors in their roles.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman stars as Andy, a manipulative real estate banker scheming to overcome heroin debts and a failing marriage by committing the perfect heist. With the help of his brother Hank (Ethan Hawke), Andy plans to knock over a local mom-and-pop jewelry store, fence the wares and hightail it to Rio with his beautiful wife. The catch? Little miss Mom and Pop just so happen to be Hank and Andy’s own. Also, Hank chose an idiot for a partner behind Andy’s back. Moreover, their Dad (Albert Finney) has a bit of a vendetta streak going. And also… Well, you can kind of see where this is about to go terribly, horribly wrong.
With the story edited in the fractured style of Pulp Fiction or Short Cuts, Lumet slowly allows his characters to emerge, giving us a total person and slowly revealing how all the sums have been added up. Playing on themes of family, marriage, misery, secrets and capitalism, he follows the father and two sons in three fragmented stories, beautifully filmed using long, graceful takes. This allows you to get a feel for the tension going on in the characters’ minds while the camera admires their slow, inevitable downfall. Though a little hard to catch, Lumet also utilizes subtle black humor that makes this film as funny as it is depressing, so don’t worry about it being all tears and hankies. It’s kind of like Fargo, sobered up and tossed into a blender with Gus Van Sant and P.T. Anderson. Crazy, I know, but this is also the guy who wanted Jack Lemmon instead of Charles Bronson leading in Death Wish. Genius. Pure genius.The cast is too good for words. Hoffman plays his role with the presence and intelligence I have come to expect from such a high-caliber performer. No longer typecast as the mopey, depressive over-weight white guy or the loud and obnoxious over-weight white guy, Hoffman portrays a villain so multi-faceted that even beneath the cruelty of his actions you ultimately sympathize with the desperation and sadness he tries so hard to hide.
And while Hoffman has a tendency to steal the show, Hawke matches him step for step, shining so brightly as to make up for every movie he’s done since Training Day. His take on a desperate divorcee wracked by debt and insecurities provides a unique vantage not only for his own drama, but for complexities of the other characters as well. Sitting down for a while and sympathizing with Hoffman is one thing, but to watch him from the shoes of a terrified and broken sibling is quite another altogether. Though extremely well-played and utterly convincing, Finney’s depiction of a doddering old man in pursuit of his wife’s killer pales in comparison to Hoffman’s and Hawkes’s and relies too heavily on having sympathy for your elders. Too often he tends to pander to his age rather than the relationships that the movie is all about, resulting in a lackluster display of senility. Maybe if he was given more screen-time, he could have developed, but as is he’s an stereotype and barely more.
Crap! I almost forgot about Marissa Tomei, who has slowly but surely been emerging as one of my favorite female actors. In the role of the lusty Gina, Tomei plays Andy’s wife, who is just as troubled as the rest of the family. Finally earning her Oscar for My Cousin Vinnie, I almost wish her storyline replaced that of the father’s, with her subtle depth of character that screams “There’s more here to learn!” without really saying a thing. Also, like half of her scenes have her nekkid and who wouldn’t want more of that.
This is an exhibition in acting, writing and directing that everyone should watch at least once and then five more times to catch the all of the things that you missed. Do not expect something very easy to digest, because this is not chicken soup for the soul. This is a long, downward spiral into places you don’t want to go, addressing issues too personal not to think about.