Before The Devil Knows You're Dead
Review by Jack Foley
TWO brothers plan a heist at a jewellery store owned by a “mom and dad” in a bid to ease their financial difficulties. Needless to say, the heist goes wrong…
Sound familiar? The bungled heist scenario has provided the platform for countless thrillers over the years – some classic, others generic. Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, the latest from veteran director Sidney Lumet, is one of the very best examples of the genre, a tightly wound and relentlessly dark movie that also functions as a searing family drama.
The mercurial Philip Seymour Hoffman and the no-less talented Ethan Hawke play the brothers in question, Andy and Hank Hanson. The former, Andy, is a drug-addicted loner who dreams of escaping to Rio with his wife (Marisa Tomei) in a bid to rekindle the sparks of their fading relationship, while the latter, Hank, is struggling to keep up with the maintenance payments for his daughter, whilst having an affair with his brother’s wife. Desperation and regret reeks from both of them.
When Andy offers Hank a quick fix by robbing the jewellery store owned by their own parents (played by Albert Finney and Rosemary Harris), the younger brother reluctantly agrees but enlists the help of a petty criminal friend (Brian F O’Byrne) who subsequently carries out the job alone and bungles it spectacularly. The ensuing fallout leaves key people dead and Andy and Hank desperate to cover their tracks – both from the law and members of their own family.
Lumet’s twisting film, based on a screenplay by Kelly Masterson, employs a fractured narrative, kicking off with the robbery itself and then jumping between the events leading up to it and the aftermath. As such, viewers are kept on their toes as the tale unfolds from the varying perspectives of the people involved.
He also keeps the tone pitch black, so that events become increasingly more twisted the further they unfold. Indeed, many of the tragedies and betrayals that befall the lead characters would be worthy of Shakespeare himself.
In the wrong hands, this could have been a relentlessly bleak and depressingly downbeat experience; but under the experienced direction of the 83-year-old Lumet and thanks to some outstanding performances, it’s a riveting potboiler that maintains a vice-like grip from start to finish.
Hoffman is superb as Andy, an otherwise despicable character (witness the opening sex scene) whose motivations somehow seem sympathetic given the self-loathing and lonely insecurity he so obviously feels; but Hawke matches him for dramatic effect as the visibly weaker of the two – a vulnerable character who stumbles from one bad decision to the next and pretty much drags everyone down with him.
Finney, too, shines as the embittered father forced into desperate measures to track down those responsible for the heist, while Tomei shines as Andy’s wife who is just as lost emotionally as the men surrounding her. There’s strong support, too, from the likes of O’Byrne as Hank’s inept partner-in-crime and Michael Shannon as a vengeful brother in law.
Late on, Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead does threaten to test the patience because of its repeated flashbacks to the same scenes seen through different perspectives, but Lumet remains sly enough to always add something unexpected to what immediately follows. And come the shocking final moments, you’ll be utterly engrossed in the lives of these losers and, quite possibly, thirsting for more…
Running time: 112mins
UK DVD Release: May 26, 2008