“May you be in heaven a full half hour before the devil knows you’re dead.”
The title of veteran Sydney Lumet‘s psychological crime drama is taken from an old colloquial saying from Ireland and ripples through this film like an undercurrent of uneasiness. Before the Devil knows you’re Dead stars adept everyman Philip Seymour Hoffman and the ever-capable Ethan Hawke, as brothers lost in dizzying discontent who hatch a quick-wit solution that delivers with unimaginable cost and circumstances. With notable support from Marisa Tomei and Albert Finney, this character-centric cautionary tale might well fall flat as a simple thriller or heist film gone awry. Yet there is something more at work here, just below the surface, a skimming of sorts of the weight of people’s lives as they begin to unravel. In the hands and prowess of auteur, Lumet, who has amassed a bevy of top-notch films with memorable performances that have become a trademark of his cinematic style, Before the Devil knows you’re Dead plays like an unrelenting chemistry experiment for the length and breadth people will go to change their lives with the best intentions and the worst possible choices.
Lumet takes the heist film and turns it on edge, choosing to focus more deeply on the lives of two brothers who conspire to conduct a robbery as a get rich scheme instead of focusing on the ‘event’ or heist. This choice in effect separates the movie from plot driven films that rely heavily on a big climactic event to make up for a lack of character development. I’m not suggesting that there is anything wrong with said plot-soaked, summer blockbuster, merely that a distinction can and should be made between them. To that end, strong characters can and do survive a mediocre story with all-too familiar plot devices and predictable outcomes, whereas the opposite makes for a painfully long spell in the theater. Think Al Pacino yelling Attica in Dog Day Afternoon, or Kevin Spacey as the unsuspecting criminal mastermind in The Usual Suspects. Characters keep us connected to the story in ways that plot and ‘event’ stories can’t. Of course a good car chase is fun; do you remember the extended car sequences in Ronin with Robert De Niro or the Mini-coopers from The Italian Job with Mark Walberg? In the case of Lumet’s Before the Devil, we connect with the brothers because they have problems we can relate to and when they come up with what seems like a reasonable solution, we half-heartedly go along with them; knowing deep down that a simple plan is anything but simple. When we learn that the brother’s target is too close to home, the inevitable tragic turn gives us a sense of involvement while it sends a lasting and tragic shock wave through everyone in proximity. By that time we’re invested and invested audiences are engaged at a gut level akin to watching your favorite baseball team win the world series, again, on the DVR.
Lumet has been compared to Martin Scorsese and Stanley Kubrick for his fevered study of complex human drama and intense perfection, demanding the most from his actors and often succeeding in award-winning performances. With films like Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Serpico (1973), he capitalized on Al Pacino’s fresh intensity, hot on the heels of Francis Ford Coppola’s epic, The Godfather (1972). Later he served an aging but no less captivating Paul Newman in The Verdict, to which Newman was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role. Lumet’s films frequently appear on critics and fans top-pick lists because of the way in which he plumbs the depths of translatable human emotions like greed, lust, love and betrayal through unique, endearing characters.
You can’t go wrong with Hoffman and Hawke sharing the screen together. The scene in which older brother (Hoffman) tutors his younger sibling (Hawke) to the simplicity of their plan is subtle yet convincing. Andy Hanson (Hoffman) convinces us right along with his brother, that the beauty of their plan is that no one is going to be hurt. But we’ve already seen the set-up through Lumet’s employment of a disassembled plot and rearrangement of various key sequences to foreshadow events to come. Similar in technique as Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, the beauty of a film like this is knowing what we know but sticking around just the same because we can’t not leave the puzzle unfinished any more than we can predict how we’re going to feel about it in the end.
For further consideration: