Murder, sex, money and family — they’re all part of the well-structured, tension-filled crime thriller, “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.” By the film’s jolting conclusion, you’ll be satisfied with director Sidney Lumet’s handling of tragic elements and, as an added bonus, your family will seem much more normal than you thought.
Though the film can’t compare to Lumet’s classic “Dog Day Afternoon,” he clearly has not lost his touch. Kelly Masterson’s screenplay sends us back and forth through time in order to pick up the puzzle pieces and put them back together. What is so intriguing is that these puzzle pieces do not solely serve to reveal the plot — rather, each piece adds depth to Masterson’s characters.
A tawdry sex scene between Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Marisa Tomei catapults the film into motion, followed by the words, “May you get to heaven a half hour” — an Irish toast when completed by the film’s title. This single phrase illustrates the characters’ twisted sense of false security. Little do they know, a crime gone awry will soon change everything.
A masked robber enters a jewelry store and holds the elderly shopkeeper at gunpoint. Neither character makes it out alive, and the scene culminates with the dying robber bursting out the front door with shards of shattered glass onto the sidewalk. Another man in obvious disguise races his car away with a mixture of screams and tears while repeating “Andy!”
The remainder of the film takes one step forward then one step back, observing the crime from multiple perspectives and inevitably revealing the nature of all players involved. The crux of this murder is that the scheming behind the robbery of the “mom and pop” jewelry shop was done by none other than the mom and pop’s children. The man in the car is Hank (Ethan Hawke), the nervously twitching baby of the family with money issues, and Andy is his brother with a serious high-end drug habit (Hoffman). We later find that the robber lying limp on the sidewalk is a small-time crook from whom Hank solicited help to perform the seedy task.
Andy’s unscrupulous morals are evident from the start. He is the conniver who drags his money-desperate brother into the fray. As the film repeatedly does, we must now back up — Hank is not as much of an aimless pushover as he may seem. He’s been having an affair with Andy’s wife, Gina, played by a mostly half-naked Tomei. Lumet never offers some sort of excuse or explanation for the baseness of his characters. But by the end, we know exactly why they are the way they are and what brought them to this point. Every action and word, no matter how small, reveals something — even if it is simply that Andy is a vain, shallow dreamer with some serious daddy issues and marriage problems. Andy and Hank’s father Charles (Albert Finney) is the person most destroyed by the evil of his sons’ actions and fails to imagine that the crime is the result of his own blood.
“Devil” succeeds greatly because in the midst of a family destroyed by greed, lust and hubris, humanity still exists. As in Greek tragedy, those who bear such human characteristics are all susceptible to the will of fate caused by both conscious decision and unlucky accidents. Lumet never ceases to intensely watch his characters. He favors raw human emotion over stylized effects and snappy dialogue. The film may not be very sexy, but it has soul — even with its spiritually devoid characters.
Hoffman plays the bad guy all too well. His morally questionable role as Truman Capote was only a warm up for playing Andy, an altogether unredeemable and downright evil brother and son. Andy’s stupidity is almost laughable, and Hoffman’s deadpan performance forces us to be acutely aware of this. Where it could have been easy to fall into melodrama, both Hoffman and Hawke keep the over-acting to a minimum.
Let this be a warning: don’t look to “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” for a film about redemption. There’s only pure evil here at the core. It may begin with thirty seconds of heaven, but for the remainder it feels like watching hell — and loving every minute of it.