Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

Film review by: Witney Seibold


            A robbery is committed, and it is botched.

            Two brothers planned the robbery. They both need money. One to support a drug habit and to win back the affections of his wife. The other to pay child support.


            The store was their parents’.


            That is the setup for Sidney Lumet’s newest film, named after an old Irish toast: “May you be in Heaven a full half hour before the Devil know you’re dead.” In other words, living a good life is not as important as duping the judges. Of course, in a court rules by God and the Devil, there’s not going to be a lot of duping involved.


            This is a harrowing film about miserable people, made by a veteran expert, and acted by some of Hollywood’s most talented. The elder brother, Andy, is played by Philip Seymour Hoffman who can play quietly manipulative better than anyone. He is secretly hooked on cocaine and occasionally visits a heroin den. He is relatively well off in his real-estate business, but is losing the affections of his attractive wife Gina (Marisa Tomei who, by spending a lot of her screentime topless, wants us to know for sure that she’s still hot), and is too instinctually and quietly selfish to kick drugs or be more loving. He talks his brother Hank into committing a jewel heist. Hank is played by Ethan Hawke, and Hawke gives the best performance of his career, making Hank into an easily manipulated weakling who lives in squalor, sputters to his ex-wife, makes obviously empty promises to his young daughter, and is only a few steps away from being a rodent.


            Dad is played by Albert Finney who proves to be the only moral character in the film, despite his committing of the film’s single most shocking act. Mom is played by Rosemary Harris. I want to tell you more about the story and the arcs the characters follow, but I really don’t want to reveal too much.


            A familial betrayal, a botched robbery, morally undecided people being manipulated into evil, evil people coming to ruin… “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” plays less like a heist movie or crime drama (Lumet wisely mixes up the film’s chronology putting the heist right at the beginning, forcing us to spend time with the characters rather than their crimes) and more like a Shakespearean tragedy. It’s rare that a film gives us any tragedy at all, much less one this powerful. The Hollywood machine seems determined to make “feelgood” movies, so when we finally get an expertly made “feelbad” film, it’s a rare thing. Lumet, 83, is a master of the craft, having made some of the best American films, and has now made one of the better films of 2007.

             “Devil” will make you weep, make you want to tear your heart out. And you will watch it in awe.

Published in: on November 12, 2007 at 7:19 pm  Leave a Comment  

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