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Movie Review:
BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD (2008)

Written by Christopher Beaubien • May 09, 2008 • Start the Discussion!

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A New Simple Plan

Watching (May You Be In Heaven Half an Hour) Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead again, I was reminded what an inciting filmmaker legend Sidney Lumet is. His directorial resume strikes me with awe: 12 Angry Men (1957), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Network (1976), Q&A (1990). In 2005, the Academy Awards honored Lumet with a Lifetime Achievement Award after being nominated for five awards in the past. Three years later at the age of 83, Lumet just makes another masterpiece as if it were easy.

Now I have to tread carefully here because there are many revelations you should discover for yourselves. The film stars Philip Seymore Hoffman (Happiness, 1998) as Andy, a dominating businessman over Hank, his feckless brother played by Ethan Hawke (Before Sunset, 2004). They both need money desperately. Andy is caught in a vicious grip of drug use to cope with his rocky marriage and the money he is embezzling from his company to feed his habit. Hank, a pretty boy gone to seed, is way behind on alimony payment and is paralyzed by fear that his little girl will despise him as much as his ex. Marisa Tomei (Slums of Beverly Hills, 1998) plays Andy’s wife Gina who displays her body vindictively and suffers from personal demons.

In his office, Andy just about towers over Hank as he proposes a way to get some easy money by robbing a jewelry store, “a mom and pop operation”, one Sunday morning. In one of many chilling moments, Hank is hunch-shouldered and all twitches as he points out, “Andy — that’s mom and dad’s store”. Andy smiles, “it’s perfect.” They know the combinations to the safe. The woman opening the store is practically blind. Get in and out. Their parents are insured. No one gets hurt. It’s perfect!

I’ll stop right here and trust you’ll be caught up one night in this thriller so fraught with tension. Watching the film is so absorbing that the 116 minutes are lost. It also brings to mind such superb examples in its genre from recent years like One False Move (1992), The Last Seduction (1995), Fargo (1996), Bound (1996), A Simple Plan (1998), Frailty (2002), and In Bruges (2008). The attention to these characters is exacting without resorting to psychobabble and needless exposition. Lumet and breakout screenwriter Kelly Masterson present them with unique details and their own sense of logic that are specifically personable to each one: “Today’s my birthday!” All of the characters are so fascinating that likability becomes irrelevant. That doesn’t stop them from being completely empathetic. After all, it’s for the grace of God; go I.

Hawke is so good at depicting Hank at the end of his rope. In one scene where he pours out one and then the whole bottle of medication pills in his hand, he eyes them carefully, and we don’t blame the guy for being suicidal. Hoffman makes it credible that anyone from an affluent and unexceptional background can be driven to the point where the pursuit of personal happiness, however delusional, makes human life look very cheap. He has a scene that deserves comparison with Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane when the title character tears a room apart. Andy’s destruction is unique in how calculated and specific his actions are. It is as if his rage has put him into a trance.

This year, Hoffman was nominated for both Tamara Jenkins’ The Savages and Mike Nichols’ Charlie Wilson’s War — all richly deserved, but his performance in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, is a good argument to see Hoffman compete with himself thrice. Albert Finney as the father commands the screen with a performance fusing with pressure as it is so heartbreakingly nuanced. He has a voice that distills fear and grief. Manhattan theater giant Rosemary Harris (Aunt May in the Spiderman movies) kicks ass. Amy Ryan (nominated for Gone Baby Gone) and Michael Shannon (William Friedkin’s Bug, 2007) make an indelible impression with limited screen time. The score by Carter Burwell (Fargo, In Bruges) is one of his best and evokes such menacing melancholy.

Marisa Tomei’s performance is so natural and acute that its greatness could be easily overlooked. She gives weight and sureness to the thankless role of the trophy wife. Watching Tomei’s reactions shames how most actors pretend to listen; particularly in the car with Hoffman’s Andy as he reaches critical mass (“IT’S NOT FAIR! ALL MY LIFE I’VE BEEN AFRAID OF BECOMING LIKE HIM!”). Tomei’s decision over Lumet’s for what she wears at a funeral is spot on. Even that pout of rage she expresses at a crucial point is deftly handled.

When I saw the film at the Vancouver Film Festival last fall, the first as well as many of the scenes that followed made an indelible impression on me. The film begins in a Brazilian hotel room where Philip Seymore Hoffman and Marisa Tomei are fornicating. During the scene, the first thought I had was “Best film of the year?” It is a rarity when North American commercial films present frank, naked and adult sexuality as a serious means of establishing such motivations for the characters.

Best of Lumets talents, like Robert Altman, he is one of the few directors who encourages creative collaboration with his actors. You can hear the gratitude and enthusiasm when Philip Seymore Hoffman and Ethan Hawke discuss the film with Lumet on the commentary track available on the DVD. When the three men aren’t fawning over Tomei’s beauty and her astute acting abilities (Hawke points out “We sound like a boy’s club”), they illuminate through conversation about rehearsals, spontaneous invention, the benefits of shooting with multiple cameras in HD, and working in the often misunderstood genre of melodrama (Lumet believes the last true melodrama was Jonathon Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, 1990).

The only regret Lumet has about the film is that audiences he attended the film with didn’t laugh at the Groucho line. Lumet has written a book aptly titled Making Movies which gives anyone interested in filmmaking an intimate idea in the point of view of a humble craftsman about the hard and mystery process. Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead is one of his most exceptional films. The last impression I got from this harrowing melodrama is that the devil does exist and he wears a plaid shirt and jeans.

“Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” Trailer

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