Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Director: Sidney Lumet

Rounding out his cinematic hat-trick that began with turns in The Savages and Charlie Wilson’s War, Academy Award winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman gives a fiercely powerful and icy performance in Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. Yes, that’s right-- it’s not a typo—eighty-three year old director Sidney Lumet (Network, Dog Day Afternoon) has made his most powerful, harrowing and complicated ensemble drama in more than two decades with this story which takes its title from an Irish toast proclaiming its wish that others have (and I’m paraphrasing) a good amount of time in Heaven before the Devil knows you’re dead.

Opening with a frankly gratuitous and exploitative sex scene that may serve as a warning to viewers that the worst is yet to come in its saga of greed, betrayal and family dysfunction that will follow, the film picks up quickly as we’re shown a botched, violent jewelry store robbery that sets everything in motion. Afterwards, Lumet employs a brilliant Rashomon like technique of going back and forth to show the different points of view of various characters and events. We’re also introduced to two very different brothers—Philip Seymour Hoffman’s amoral yet successful, cool, calculating and easily devious businessman Andy Hanson who’s hiding a serious drug addiction and his more attractive and sensitive younger brother Hank played by Ethan Hawke. While on the surface, the two look nothing like one another, they provide a nice balance of how two children from the same family can grow up so differently from one another. As their father Charles (Albert Finney) tells Andy, as the first born son, he had it rough and there’s plenty of old wounds beneath his posh exterior that seem to open up whenever his brother (always called “the baby” of the family) gets out of things easier and is used to having his messes cleaned up for him by Andy. However, the childish squabbles and trivial problems of their upbringing haven’t prepared them in the least for the unspeakable situation they find themselves in during adulthood when both brothers-- desperate for cash-- decide to pull off what they naively assume will be the perfect, victimless crime of robbing an insured jewelry store without violence. Of course, these things always play out better in their imagination for as the audience knows right from the start, things go terribly and bloodily wrong for Andy and Hank.

Devastating, gloomy and unforgiving in its depiction of the very worst evil lurking in the hearts of scheming men, the film earned two justifiable Best Ensemble accolades for its stellar cast. However, some viewers (especially women) will soon get tired of the way that Academy Award winning actress Marisa Tomei is used mostly for her body as she is naked in a majority of her earliest scenes and one wonders just why someone of her caliber would take such a thankless part even though it’s possibly indicative of the male dominated ’07 cinematic ventures with very few parts being offered for women. Although despite this one major flaw and a beginning that will surely send some audience members straight for the door, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is a stark and intelligent modern Greek tragedy and proof once again of the genius of Hoffman who, as a few audience members shared while walking out, may very well go down in history as one of our country’s finest actors.