The director returns to form with “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead”, an independently made film featuring exceptional performances from Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney and even Marisa Tomei. This powerful film had me riveted to my seat, unable to tear my eyes away from the screen for even a moment.
Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) meets his brother, Hank (Ethan Hawke) at a local bar. Andy and Hank work in the same real estate office and share a lot as brothers, including their personal and financial problems. Because of this, Andy knows Hank has a lot of financial problems; a divorcee, the younger brother struggles to meet the alimony and child support and lives in a dump, sleeping on a sofa bed. But Andy has problems of his own; he tries to give his wife (Marisa Tomei) the finer things in life, things he can’t afford, he has fallen into quite a bit of debt as well. He has the perfect plan. There is a small jewelry store in a strip mall in the suburbs. They are both intimately familiar with the store and everything they steal would be insured. It would be a victimless crime. Hank soon realizes Andy is talking about the store their parents (Albert Finney and Rosemary Harris) own. He doesn’t want to do it. But the financial pressures force him to reconsider and he enlists the aid of a shady friend, Bobby (Brian F. O’Byrne) to help him rob the store. When they arrive, Hank gets a queasy stomach as they watch Hank’s dad (Finney) drive up and drop off his mom (Harris); Hank almost decides against it, his mom wasn’t supposed to be there. But Bobby is going through with it anyway and decides to go in alone. Then everything goes wrong.
Directed by Sidney Lumet and written by Kelly Masterson, “Devil” is a film concentrating on the story and the performances with little in the way of flash or flourish to stand in the way of the characters and plot. The one concession to modern filmmaking comes when Lumet wants to shift the focus of the story. When the film begins, we watch the three days before the store robbery from Hank’s point of view. When the story reaches a pivotal point, we shift to four days before the store robbery, but this time, from Andy’s point of view. So we see many of the same things twice, but with different events leading up to the same conversations or meetings. In one story, we might watch a character listen to his phone ring and when he finally decides to pick it up, there is no one on the line. Later, we see the other brother making that call, and why. As the story continues, we soon start to watch Charles’ (Finney) point of view. It is an interesting method to show us all of the different thought processes and the consequences of various actions, not just on one character but on everyone involved in the story. Sure, this is the type of device made famous by Tarantino, but it is not really copies here so much as it is given new life.
The key to this film’s success if that we believe everything we see. Two brothers decide to rob their parent’s business. Even if they believe it will be a victimless crime, what sort of thought process leads to this moment? As “Devil” begins, we see evidence of the financial cesspool each of the brothers is in, and they are in deep, each for different reasons and in different ways. But we believe Hank and Andy can barely breathe due to the anxiety surrounding their every moment. It makes sense each would welcome any opportunity to keep their heads above water. So when Andy suggests the plan, we can see why he would sink to such a level. Lumet convinces us of their need to get money. During the film, we see evidence of the other influences and problems in their lives. We have to believe there is more than just a financial strain, there has to be a missing mental connection.
Naturally, with an actor the caliber of Hoffman, he shows this in spades. As the story progresses, he reveals the many layers of Andy’s character. All of the bad decisions he has made and continues to make and he has made many. It is a wonder Andy is able to fool anyone, but he succeeds. On all levels, at first glance, Andy appears to be a completely normal person, and everyone is fooled. But the botched robbery proves to be the unraveling point and he desperately tries to keep everything going, to maintain his image, hoping, looking for an escape.
Hoffman does an outstanding job making Andy come alive. He has to make Andy’s attempts to appear normal and respectable believable, yet reveal little bits of this to us as he does so. Then, as everything begins to unravel, he shows us how hard Andy continues to try to make everything work. And below all of this, a seething rage threatens to break out, yet another facet of his character he has to control, yet subtly reveal to us.
Ethan Hawke plays Hank, the younger brother and the more established screw-up. He seems to have never made a good decision in his life, and these mistakes have continued to compound throughout the years, causing him more and more problems. As Hank’s problems continue to grow, his brother is aware of the trouble he is in and comes up with the plan for both of them to gain some independence.
But Hank is the type of guy who always has cold feet and finds problems with everything. Even after he agrees to go ahead with the plan to rob their parents’ jewelry store, he starts to change his mind and Bobby has to go ahead and commit the robbery without him, leaving him alone in the car outside. Hank can’t even complete this action, something so reprehensible no son should even contemplate in the first place, but since he has decided to go ahead with the scheme, you would expect him to be able to follow through.
Throughout the film, we see illustration after illustration of Hank’s inability to cope with anything and everything. It is amazing he is even able to function at the level he does. So when he leaves the operation in Bobby’s hands, it doesn’t really come as a surprise. And the consequences of these actions, which are very bad, also make sense, given what we know about Hawke’s character.
Hawke does a great job of making Hank desperate in his attempts to control the universe around him. He is late with alimony and child support so decides to lash out against his ex-wife when she continues to nag him for the money. As soon as his daughter enters the picture, he turns on the charm and sweetness. As soon as she is gone, he hurls a lame rebuttal at his ex-wife. There, he showed her. It is as convincingly lame as it sounds and adds a lot to his portrayal of this loser. He has no power or control over his life and tries to prove it every minute.
When I first saw the trailer for “Devil”, it ends by noting the Academy Award Hoffman won, the nomination Hawke earned, the Academy Award Tomei won and the nomination Finney has earned, in that order. What is wrong with this picture? Marisa Tomei has won an Academy Award and Albert Finney hasn’t? Tomei has contributed some interesting performances to a number of interesting independent films since her Academy Award win for Best Supporting Actress in “My Cousin Vinny”, but she hasn’t done anything Oscar worthy. Ever. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated example of Oscar mistakes.
In “Devil”, she plays Gina, Andy’s (Hoffman) wife. As the film opens, she and Andy are in Brazil, enjoying a vacation. “What if we could stay here forever?” Andy asks. Gina doesn’t take him seriously, but she should because he is about to set into motion the plan at the center of the story. As the situation spirals out of control, she plays the supportive spouse, trying to help the family through this crisis. But she also plays an unknowing role in the plan.
It is a good performance from Tomei. As Gina begins to realize the problems her husband is facing, she tries to get him to talk but he only says “I’ll take care of it” or grunts in response. She is used to this and makes no effort to hide the problems she and her husband are having, engaging in questionable activities of her own. But even she comes to a point where she can’t handle it anymore.
Albert Finney plays Charles, the patriarch of the family and he is largely quiet through the entire story. This makes sense, given the circumstances. But as he struggles with how to cope with the situation he has been placed in, we see various bursts of rage, anger, remorse, confusion and shock. Amazingly, Finney portrays these with very little outward movement. A mere glance is used to convey one feeling. A small gesture another. Charles is in shock because of what has recently happened to his family. As he begins to realize what is going on, in the background, what set all of these events into motion, he moves with his mouth hanging open, determined to find out all of the details, yet dumbfounded at the same time. It is a performance only a master of the craft could make work. Finney makes it work.
“Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” is a fantastic film, an in-depth look at the actions and consequences of two royally screwed-up brothers. It is the type of film only a master director could make work. Sidney Lumet makes it work.