Droid defines the Decades Best Films – #4 Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)
In the unlikely event that I’m still alive at 83, I fully expect that I’ll be in some nursing home, relieving myself in my Depends and staring blankly at the wall as I slowly rot into obscurity. At that age Sidney Lumet on the other hand, director of ’12 Angry Men’, ‘Dog Day Afternoon’ and ‘Network’ (to name but a few), made the crime melodrama ‘Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead’. It’s an amazing achievement.
Andy Hanson (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a slick real estate executive with a trophy wife (Marisa Tomei) and some very bad habits. His brother Hank (Ethan Hawk) is struggling to make his child support payments to his ex-wife (Amy Ryan). For very different reasons, they’re in need of money to change their lives. When Andy enlists Hank in a scheme to rob a jewellery store, it sets off a chain of events that inevitably leads to tragedy.
I don’t want to describe the plot any further just in case you haven’t seen it (even though the trailer gives it away), so I’ll move on.
The acting in this film is nothing short of superb. Seymour Hoffman, Hawke and Tomei each put in career best performances. On paper you would never believe Hawke and Seymour Hoffman are brothers, but you never question it during the film. These two look like they have history. Andy, older, stronger and smarter, bullying the younger, weaker Hank. Andy is such a loathsome person. He’s a drug addict and a thief, and we start out hating him, but such is the strength of the writing and the acting, that his full character and his motivations are gradually revealed, and our loathing shifts to pity. He hates everyone, but no one more than himself. His childhood, and his relationship with his father, wonderfully played by Albert Finney, is only obliquely hinted at, but gradually the pieces come together and we understand who Andy is. There is a moment late in the film, where Andy looks at someone and see’s everything he hates about himself. The look on Seymour Hoffmans face, the loathing is frightening.
Ethan Hawke is always a solid actor. Sometimes, as in the Before Sunrise/Sunset films he can be more than that. But here he’s so good that it’s one of the most underrated performances of recent years. Through body language Hawke creates a weak, pathetic Hank as a coddled loser, the baby of the family, who never learnt at a young age to stand up for himself and now lets himself be pushed around by his brother, his ex-wife and even his daughter. His lack of backbone, even though he knows it’s wrong, allows him to get pressured in to participating in what should be a quick, violence free robbery. But instead, he enlists the help of a petty criminal (Brian F. O’Byrne) who insists on bringing a gun. Hank is too weak to stand up to him, and of course the robbery goes wrong. He’s a weasel, but not a bad person. He’s just a useless human being.
Marisa Tomei, my god, Marisa Tomei. She seems to be giving the middle finger to natural order and getting more beautiful and sexy as she ages. But here she’s not just eye candy (despite the abundance of nudity). Tomei is terrific in creating someone who simultaneously tries to be caring and loving, but is vapid and insecure and who has nothing of value to offer, except for her looks. Albert Finney, as Hank and Andy’s father, is terrific in his supporting role. He has moments, as when he his wife is on life support and he leans over and lovingly kisses her hand, or the look of horror on his face when he finds out who is actually involved in the robbery, that mesmerise. The supporting cast is filled with terrific actors, such as Amy Ryan, Rosemary Harris, Leonardo Cimino and Michael Shannon, that while only onscreen briefly, make a big impact.
The screenplay, written by Kelly Masterson, is impeccably constructed. It folds time, doubling back on itself to show scenes from different perspectives. This is not a gimmick. Instead it’s purposely written to drip feed information about characters, and as the film plays out, it develops motivations and makes sense of these people. There is a deep-seeded sadness and desperation to the main characters, who trudge through their shallow, unhappy lives and then pathetically attempt to better them. This is his debut film and it’s brilliant writing that walks the fine line of reality and bold, over the top themes of good and evil.
What can you say about Sidney Lumet? After fifty years of making films he knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s made over forty films, and while there have been some bad films here and there, he’s also made quite a few that can easily be considered amongst the best ever. Here he shoots in digital video with multiple cameras, allowing him to cover multiple actors at once. This heightens the realism of the film, and grounds the heightened melodrama in a believable reality. There’s a scene where, just after his mothers funeral and an important conversation with his father, Andy and his wife Gina are driving home and Andy emotionally breaks down. Seymour Hoffman and Tomei are terrific in the scene, and despite both sitting in the front seats of the car, Lumet captures them in separate one shots, cutting back and forth, amplifying their isolation from each other. It’s a brilliant, impactful scene and the direction expertly highlights the meaning and subtext (yes, Don, I said subtext!). To make this film at any age is an achievement, but to make it at the age of 83 is amazing.
There is a line towards the end of the film, delivered by an old jewellery dealer played by Leonardo Cimino that expertly sums the themes of the film up. “The world is an evil place. Some people make money from it, and some people are destroyed by it.” The tragic inevitability in which ‘Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead’ unfolds is fascinating, harrowing and intense. The film puts you through the ringer, and doesn’t pull it’s punches. It’s a brilliant film.
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