“Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” was the last film directed by Sidney Lumet, a director with a career spanning sixty years and included masterpieces such as “The Verdict”, “Serpico” and “Dog Day Afternoon”. It stars Philip Seymour Hoffman, Albert Finney, Ethan Hawke and Marisa Tomei. The film involves two brothers plotting to rob their parents’ jewellery store, a plan which goes horribly wrong and leads to an escalation of disaster. It is a tense crime drama which keeps you watching, even while you can see that this is a disaster from which the characters cannot escape.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is excellent in the role of Andy, the elder brother and mastermind of the plot. The character has a good job and should have no problems at all, except that he has a serious drug habit and has been embezzling from his company in order to keep financing this. Trouble arises for him when his company announces the tax office will be conducting an audit, and he knows that his activities will come to light. So, he figures that he will enlist his younger brother (always broke at least in part due to child support payments to an ex-wife which he struggles to meet), get the younger brother to do the robbery, the parents will get insurance, they will get the proceeds of the robbery, and no one will get hurt. As the audience will discover, younger brother Hank isn’t exactly the most reliable soul, which Andy, if he was as smart as he thinks he is, should have worked out. Hoffman excels in this role – Andy superficially appears to be a successful businessman, but underneath he is a drug addict, thief and bully. Hoffman’s incredible performance highlights the nuances of this character, the secrets he will keep and the lies he will tell. There is a moment with Marisa Tomei in a car, where he has a melt down over the fact that his horrible father tried to apologise for the past, angrily saying that his father’s behaviour was not something he was prepared to overlook, that is a superb moment of acting. Hoffman was a great actor and he certainly showed it in this role.
Ethan Hawke is the younger brother, Hank. Hank is a bit of a flake, with a daughter he struggles to pay child support for, and has trouble holding jobs. He is not reliable, (as we gather from the few scenes with his always annoyed ex-wife). He tries to get by on charm and good looks, but he is broke and nothing is getting better for him. He is also something of a weak character, so in spite of his definite dislike of Andy’s grand plan to rob their parents he agrees to go along with it. Hank’s not a particularly good guy – while he isn’t paying his daughter’s child support we do see him in a bar on several occasions, so we can see this as a case of mismanagement rather than a complete lack of funds. While the film doesn’t make this quite so obvious, Hank’s alcohol consumption is as much of an addiction as Andy’s drugs problem. His affair with his brother’s wife is just the icing on the cake of a road crash of an existence. Hawke is so good in this film – his anxiety, fear, and pathos are fully on display.
Albert Finney plays Charles, the father of Hank and Andy. We only see his interactions with his sons after the event they have caused, and he seems angry, contemptuous and bitter. It is hard to judge their relationship from this, but Andy talks to his wife about how horrible his father is, and Charles refers to Hank as a ‘baby’ in a way that seems habitual. This is not a good father, and it eventuates that Andy’s assessment of his father is quite correct. Finney is, as always, excellently cast – his fury seethes and boils off the screen, and his grief is raw.
Lumet uses a time jump type of narrative – so we are told that events in the scene are the day of the robbery, two days before, four days after and so on. I thought this was an effective way to drip-feed the audience the unfolding events, who these people are, what they’ve done, and why they’ve done it. While a ‘heist gone wrong’ plot does seem a little hackneyed, Lumet has used it here to bring us a tragedy of family dysfunction that leaves the audience wrung out by the end. Camera work is very much centred on the actors – we have no choice but to closely follow their feelings as they flounder through an ever-deepening mire of quicksand.
“Before the Devil knows you’re Dead” is an unrelenting, miserable story, so don’t watch it if you want a happy ending. But if you want to see excellent actors giving brilliant performances under a master director in his last film before his death, watch this film. It’s been referred to as a thriller, but I think this is something of a misnomer. The crime at the centre of this film is only the catalyst for the audience to watch a dysfunctional family implode. I highly recommend it.