Judge Daryl Loomis certainly hopes that old Irish saying comes true for him.
It's a mom and pop operation.
In 2005, at 80 years old, the Academy gave legendary director Sidney Lumet (Dog Day Afternoon) the "Lifetime Achievement Award" for the half century of beautiful gifts he has given to moviegoers. While it's impossible to dispute Lumet's greatness, it is amazing that three years after the award, he would add another great film to his resume. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is neither a rehash of earlier work, nor the pining of an old, outdated director in his winter years. This is a tightly woven thriller mixed with a superb family drama that feels fresher and more current than most anything dreamt up by younger directors.
Facts of the Case
Two desperate brothers (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote, and Ethan Hawke, Gattaca) have a plan to knock off a suburban jewelry store. It'll be the easiest half million they've ever made. It should be; it's their parents' store. It's a victimless crime; the jewelry is insured, and the old lady working that day is blind as a bat. As well as they've planned the operation, however, things go horribly wrong. Their mother (Rosemary Harris, Spider-man), who wasn't supposed to be there, shoots dead the man they hired to do the deed, and she is shot in the process. Now comatose, the boys go to their father (Albert Finney, Wolfen) who, in his grief, is hellbent on finding out who ruined his family. In his search, he finds secrets on top of secrets and a family ruined long ago that, only now because of this tragedy, finally boils over.
On the surface, it is difficult to root for the characters in this fatalistic drama. The Hanson family is such a corrupt, decrepit unit that it seems natural to hope they fall apart. For all the deep-seeded animosity and resentment between family members, however, there is real love and affection between them, no matter how hard it is to see. This makes Before the Devil Knows You're Dead very hard to watch at times. While they may never show it, in each person's own perverse way, they are looking out for the other's best interest. Unfortunately, the choices they make are so misguided that any time they actually try to help, things get worse. This doesn't make the characters sympathetic, though. These fleeting moments of generosity are undermined by their overwhelming selfishness. Fed by their fears and desperation, each person acts blindly without regard to consequences or basic human decency.
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead deftly skirts the line between melodrama and thriller, and hits its mark on both ends brilliantly. The story is told out of sequence and this trick, while somewhat gimmicky, strengthens both aspects. We are given each character's experiences separately to tell one small part of the story at a time. These scenes merge with one another until we eventually have the complete picture of this family. We can see all their fears and desperate machinations individually so that, when the family members are together, the emotional impact is maximized. Because connecting scenes are isolated from each other, we are left with questions and mysteries that can only be solved with the whole story. These questions help to build huge amounts of tension until the story comes to a head in the bittersweet conclusion. Tightly written with realistic dialogue and strong supporting characters by first-time screenwriter Kelly Masterson, the fatalism of the story is straight out of Greek tragedy. There are not a lot of twists and turns in the plot; we watch knowingly as every character does exactly the wrong thing at every step. While the film is not happy on any level, it's not nihilistic. The Hansons, and other families just as corrupted, may live in this world, but the world itself is not inherently corrupt.
Ultimately though, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead succeeds on the shoulders of the performances. An acting juggernaut, every character is fully realized to the core, where all their seemingly random movements and facial tics carry meaning. Philip Seymour Hoffman has emerged as a phenomenal actor over the past decade and his performance as Andy drives the entire film. Andy is full of conflict and addictions, but masks it under a veneer of respectability as thin as the sheen of sweat on his brow. Ethan Hawke makes Andy's brother Hank into a pathetic sap who wants to do right by his brother and his young daughter, both of whom doubt his spine, but he's too afraid of the world to take a single step. The two of them might not physically resemble brothers, but their interactions and internalized resentment are brothers through and through. Marisa Tomei (In the Bedroom) plays Andy's wife Gina who, while also sleeping with Hank, is desperate for somebody to love her for who she is, though she can't even begin to love herself. The family patriarch, Charles (Finney), is equally as corrupted as anyone else in the film, but is treated slightly more sympathetically that the rest of the characters. His wife has been shot, his children are bad seeds, and Charles seems driven into madness through frustration. The story doesn't go as deeply into his past as others, but conversations and the general air of sleaziness that the great Albert Finney adds to the character hint at some serious transgressions in his life. There are definite reasons why the brothers wish that dad had been shot instead of mom, though these reasons are never spoken. The only character who remains uncorrupted is mom, and that's because she's in a coma and can't speak. I do suspect, however, that she is not the heroic martyr she's made out to be by her sons.
The release of Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is of quality, but not spectacular on any level. The film was shot on high definition video, but it looks beautiful. For an 83-year-old, Lumet proves that he's as much a master of this new technology as he was of celluloid and, in the commentary track, discusses his exuberance over the freedom this gives him after all these years. The transfer is perfect as it should be for a new film, especially one shot digitally. The surround sound track is not overpowering, but it is very functional. The dialogue is always crystal clear (important, since I always seem to have a hard time understanding Hoffman's eloquent mumbles) and the surround channels are used sparingly, but to good effect. The DVD is not stacked with extras, but what's here is very good. The commentary is one of the best I've ever listened to, with Hoffman and Hawke (two very intelligent actors) essentially interviewing Lumet (one very intelligent director). The result is an engrossing look at Lumet's history, the state of current film, and the underscoring issues surrounding this film. Unfortunately, though they admit it while it's happening, the commentary will sometimes degenerate into a "boy's club," as none of them can help themselves from gushing over the spectacular beauty and talent of Marisa Tomei. All in all, this is a solid release of a very solid film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As much as I loved this film, the female characters are treated very badly. Women in this world do three things: have sex, nag, and die. Even Tomei, who is lauded by everyone involved in the film, is no more than the object that comes between the brothers. It could have been any number of things that served this purpose; it just turns out to be a woman. Given how well the rest of the film is done, the Gina character could have at least had her own story, but she does not exist independently from the Hansons. It's not a deal-breaker, but it is the one troubling aspect of this otherwise fantastic film.
The title of this film comes from an old Irish saying: "May you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you're dead." The idea behind this, that everyone has skeletons that would damn us if revealed, is a dour concept. When this is applied to the story of a family embroiled in crime and desperation, it becomes this film, the sheer essence of dysfunction. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is another masterwork from a legendary director.
Not guilty, but the court orders the Hanson family to attend at least a billion hours of family counseling.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio commentary with Sidney Lumet, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Ethan Hawke
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