Before the Devil Knows Your Dead (2007) dir. Sidney Lumet
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, Marissa Tomei
Sidney “Serpico” Lumet hasn’t made a good film in 20 years (“Running on Empty”?) but from the premise and cast I was hoping for a return to form. The premise is intriguing as hell – a two troubled brothers pull off a heist of their parents’ jewelry store, but inadvertently kill their own mother. The action sets off a firestorm of familial bad blood and Shakespearean-like tragedy. Unfortunately “Before the Devil Knows Your Dead” is not a return to form, it’s a terribly overwrought, implausible, overproduced, overacted melodrama without an ounce of truth.
The film opens with the jewelry heist. A masked man robs a kindly old lady of her store of jewels. The woman surprisingly fights back and winds up getting shot and killed. The guy driving the car, Hank, (Ethan Hawke) is shocked to see the ‘easy score’ turn bloody. In the next scene, we flashback a few days before to meet Hank and his family, when it’s revealed that the store owner was in fact Hank’s mother. The film moves back and forth across the days before and after the heist to tell us how it all shook down. Four days before, Hank’s ball-breaking arrogant brother Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) posits the plan to rob their parent's store to his younger brother. Both brothers are on the verge of crackling under social and financial pressures and appear to be living depressed, uneventful lives. Thinking it’s a victimless crime and their parents secure through insurance, Hank agrees to do the deed, the results of which we know already from the opening scene.
Hank and Andy’s father Charles (Albert Finney), frustrated with the ineffectual police investigation takes it upon himself to find the killer – not knowing he’s looking for his own sons. As the boys desperately try to hide their tracks, Hank spins out of control, turning sadistic and dangerous. The three men eventually collide with tragic consequences.
“Before the Devil Knows Your Dead” is a good film gone bad. Despite a talented cast and once talented director, the film sounds better on paper than on the screen. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character is unrelatable as a human being. We first see him making mad animalistic love to his wife (Marissa Tomei), then having sweet modest pillow talk afterwards. But after this first scene he is a crazed maddog of a character from then on. His proposal to his brother is completely mishandled – the devilish unemotional sneer he emotes while telling his brother to rob their own parents is unnecessary and unbelievable. Why the pair of brothers couldn’t simply ask their parents for some money is a question never raised. Someone missed the boat here, because there’s a backstory to be explored as to how a father could raise their children to commit such a heinous act. The proposition is told to us so quick and early in the story we never get to ponder the extremity of their situation – and ask, ‘is this the only option for the boys?’
I suspect these issues were never answered in the script and as a result Lumet compensates by giving us some cinematic gymnastics to distract our attention. First, he jumbles the timeline, flashing forward and back in typical over-used Steven Soderbergh/ Quentin Tarantino fashion. Unfortunately the jumping around doesn’t heighten the drama or compliment the story. It’s artificial and distracting. Secondly, the performances are surprisingly weak. Philip Seymour Hoffman is over-the-top and scene-chewing. He’s so sadistic, cruel and dispassionate he’s a bad guy drawn from the action film genre. Thirdly Lumet distracts us by making Marissa Tomei strip down in the majority of her scenes. I definitely counted the first three scenes with her were played either topless or buck naked. She’s a fine woman to look at, don’t get me wrong, but it's too exploitive for a serious film.
Albert Finney used to be a great actor, but he is too old, shaky and lost in his role as the vigilante father. It’s a minor quibble, but Finney could not close his mouth in the film. Whenever he’s onscreen, his mouth is gaping wide open which makes him look like he’s constantly gasping for air. His actions in the final moments of the film seem tacked on in a conscious effort to be shocking. I just rolled my eyes and said – "nice try Sidney, you can’t fool me, this film is not profound, nor tragic - just overwrought, manipulative and unbelievable."