Review: “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” (2007)

Hoffman and Hawke relearn that old lesson -- no plan is foolproof -- in "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead."

Hoffman and Hawke relearn that old lesson -- no plan is foolproof -- in "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead."

Here’s the plain truth: Sidney Lumet’s grim, gripping “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” won’t so much wear you down as break you down … hard. In frame after frame, Lumet uses his disjointed, objective direction to build the momentum, and he never hesitates or shrinks back. Neither do the actors. So the hits — emotional and physical — keep coming until the film steamrolls into a conclusion that’s profoundly unsettling. “Devil” is as draining as it is invigorating to behold.

Part of that energy has to do with the way the story (epic in scope) unfolds. The narrative is nonlinear, so the characters are introduced in jarring flashbacks and meta-flashbacks. This a multi-layered story, with plots and subplots weaving in and out, but there is a common thread: Andy (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a man who believes money will rebuild his broken life. Andy convinces his brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) to commit the perfect crime: Rob their parents’ jewelry store, pawn the merchandise and walk away with $60,000 each. It’s a win-win, since Hank is months behind on his child support and Andy’s living light years beyond his means (thanks to his money-hungry wife, played by Marisa Tomei). But Murphy’s law (or karma?) mucks up Andy’s scheme from minute one, and nothing about the robbery goes as planned. Things go very, very wrong, leaving Andy and a shell-shocked Hank with blood on their hands and their father, Charles (Albert Finney), hell-bent on finding out who planned the robbery.

To say more about the plot would be to ruin the experience of watching “Devil.” There are grueling twists and surprises aplenty. In fact, the film feels much like a vase that’s been broken and glued back together wrong, with sharp edges jutting out and pieces shoved into nooks where they don’t really fit. But that’s why “Devil” is so absorbing — the pieces are all there; it’s up to viewers to put them in order. In Lumet’s mind, it seems, the viewers are the detectives. He makes us work for it.

The actors deserve much of the credit for injecting even more energy into “Devil.” The supporting cast is large, but the players make their performances singularly unforgettable. Finney is quietly effective as Charles, a man reeling from the fallout of a crime he can’t fathom. But his is not a one-note performance, for Charles isn’t an ideal father, and Finney isn’t afraid to let the cracks show. Hawke, too, plays it subtle; it might be the best work he’s ever done. Known for playing fake-charming womanizers, he shrinks himself to portray Hank, an emotional cripple whose coddled upbringing didn’t prep him to deal with reality. He cowers when things go wrong. Tomei, who just keeps getting better, is impressive as Gina. Essentially, Gina’s a trophy wife; she spends more time romancing Andy’s platinum card than Andy. But watch what Tomei does with her eyes, particularly in the scene where Andy breaks down. There are hints of depth there. Gina may be one of the film’s few female characters, but Tomei makes her more than just a party favor.

As for Hoffman, this may be his best performance — and he won an Oscar for “Capote.” In “Devil,” Hoffman gets another meaty role, and he does not disappoint. On one level, he exceeds at demonstrating Andy’s many flaws. Here is a man who craves money and success, a preternaturally calm control freak who refuses to admit he’s sinking too fast to pull himself up. He steals and lies, then wonders why the parts of his life “don’t add up.” But leave it to Hoffman to find beauty where there is none. When Andy finally lets loose, Hoffman rips into the pain like a man possessed. He shows that Andy is an insecure man who has numbed his feelings to the point where he believed they no longer existed. It’s the exhausting, awe-inspiring lit fuse that fires Lumet’s exquisitely crafted and tumultuous Greek tragedy character study.  

Grade: A+

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17 Responses

  1. After mixed reviews I caught this at the cinema in one of those nothing else on weeks, I was so glad that I did. It disappeared without a trace the following week. I agree that the performances are brilliant. It was the first time I had seen Marisa Tomei in a film in years, as well as a great performance I was amazed, she looks better in her 40’s than she did in her 20’s how does that happen?

    • I hear that — I had to drive an hour out of my way to find an arthouse theater in Charleston to see this! (And “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” doesn’t even qualify as an arthouse film!) Totally worth the extra miles.

      Marisa Tomei, I think, is just one of those actresses who gets better with age. This has happened with Adam Sandler as well. It’s a mystery…

  2. Unfortunately as you’ve hinted, this movie is very under appreciated, and remains unseen by many. I saw this on Netflix Watch Instantly and was blown away right up until the very end. And then the film stuck with me for 2 or 3 days afterwords.

    • The end (which struck me as almost textbook Greek tragedy) shook me up, and bad. Still does every time. So does Hoffman’s acting. He puts so much energy into the part I almost fear for his sanity.

  3. What an underrated and overlooked movie! People don’t know what they’re missing out on with this one. Hoffman is one of my favorite actors and he can do no wrong (even in Twister he stole the show). And Marissa Tomei keeps getting better and better. Great movie and great review.

    • He really stole the show in “Along Came Polly” (not a great movie, or even a particularly good one), but my favorite supporting actor part he’s done was Gus in “Charlie Wilson’s War.” He deserved that Oscar nomination.

  4. I have this one checked out of the library right now. Can’t wait to see it after your glowing review.

    • I’ve talked to some people who didn’t like the structure, and I’ll admit after an hour or so it gets annoying, but you can’t beat the acting. It’s awesome.

  5. what is it with this movie? this is the second post ive read recently extolling it. have to say M Carter, im very disappointed with you – i thought this was pretentious, gimmicky and, to get a bit technical for a second, absolute s**t.
    but then i think Tommy Boy is better than The Godfather Part II…

    • I’m gonna be controversial for a moment here, McG, and say that it is “Tommy Boy” that’s overrated. It might be better than the third “Godfather” film, but that’s not exactly a compliment, since I’m pretty sure “Godzilla vs. Megalon” is better than that movie.

      Oh, and I’m the liberal child of two conservative Republican parents, so disappointment? It doesn’t bother me a bit.

  6. Just to add to the controversy I haven’t seen Tommy Boy.

  7. Love to see someone else loving this flick! I think it is was grotesquely overlooked at year’s end in 2007.

    It was a directorial and acting master-class…and the melodrama was tres manifique.

    Here was my original review when it was 1st in theaters:

    http://davethenovelist.wordpress.com/2007/11/05/a-review-of-sidney-lumets-before-the-devil-knows-youre-dead/

    • I’m not exactly a flag-waving fan of melodrama, but in “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” it had an epic/Greek tragedy feel to it that I really enjoyed — reminded me a tad of Shakespeare’s better plays, like “Titus,” where everyone’s dead or miserably unhappy at the end.

  8. [...] this fragmented timeline strategy in other films, including 2007′s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.”) The film starts not at the beginning but at the end, with Frank bleeding in the back of a police [...]

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