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Movie Review: Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead

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It’s very impressive that a director can start making movies in the late 1950s – with the classic 12 Angry Man, as his very first I might add, – and 50 years on can make something as high in quality as Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead. It’s a true testament for sticking to something you’re good at for as long as you can and Lumet’s dedication and experience serves him extremely well.

When two brothers, played by Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman respectably, organize the robbery of their parent’s jewelery store things go horrible wrong. This triggers a series of events that will change the lives of everyone involved.

Taken from an Irish saying, “May you be in heaven a full half hour before the devil knows you’re dead,” the film’s title sums up the whole thing perfectly. It takes a fairly generic crime story and effectively flips it on its head adding in a back-and-forth-in-time mentality to tell us what happens and explores the complicated lives of the characters in as much depth as anyone could hope for from a film. Stemming from this robbery storyline we get all sorts of complex issues that are delved into such as loyalty, family value, betrayal, love, and getting one’s life into order. These are all things that inevitably affect everyone in one form or another at some point but we see particularly the latter come into play.

Hoffman is fantastic as the brother who sets this whole robbery plan up and who gets a sympathetic Ethan Hawke as his brother to unwillingly come in with him on it. He’s very much opposed to this plan once he finds out it’s his own parents store that will be “knocked off”, as Hoffman’s character puts it so very boldly at one point, but soon the temptation of his money worries being solved gets too much for him. The audience will be on one side or the other; to resist but admit they’d be tempted or be the one who takes control. But either way it’s clear this isn’t going to do anyone any good and the film explores this in a very thorough and satisfying fashion.

Like I said the film unfolds in a very non-chronological fashion. We will first see the robbery take place then it will cut away to a time either way before or way after, with a title card coming on-screen indicating something like, “Hank – 3 Days Before The Robbery”. It helps to take this storyline we’ve seen similarly in countless other crime movies and put a fresh spin on it. There was a danger this may have been hard to follow but the plot is woven together so intricately by Lumet that it’s almost hard not to keep up. This is achieved by showing, a lot of the time, an event from different viewpoints, sometimes even the same scene will be shown in-part from a different angle to link us back up to where we left off a short while beforehand. It was a bold move to make but rather inducing confusion it achieves creative complexity.

Hoffman is on absolutely top form here as our brother on the edge. There’s a scene in the middle that sees him on the verge of exploding as his emotions get a bit too much for him. It’s almost unbearable as we see and hear his character shout and scream things that have been boiling up for years. It’s just another example that he’s one of the finest actors we have working today and it’s no wonder that all-time great directors like Lumet offer him roles in their movies.

Hawke is also great here but he very much stays in the shadow of Hoffman’s overbearing role. I find him a fascinating actor to watch and especially listen to in general. Although he works best with a script penned by Richard Linklater (see Before Sunrise/Sunset as a fine example) as it allows him to go on intriguing and intelligent rants about the state of society or his life as a child. He employs his talent here for making the character interesting and more importantly believable as an unwilling partner in crime. He’s the character we can most identify with as an audience member, and as a human being.

Marisa Tomei, who I had pegged as a nice-looking face and not a talent, shows she has acting ability, particularly in the aforementioned emotional breakdown scene involving Hoffman (just watch her expressions as he rants). Albert Finney, although perhaps in a role a little too small for such a talent, is wonderful to watch. He always gives off an effortless believability and intelligence in pretty much everything he’s in and he provides yet another window for us to peek through into the lives of these people.

Although I found the ending not entirely on the believably side of the fence I still found myself afterwards mulling over the wonderful performances, the unique storytelling techniques and how much one traumatic event can affect so many people’s lives and in so many different ways. There’s a recurring score running through the film, almost a theme song of sorts, which is sublimely perfect; it tells us that what has happened, is happening and what’s going to happen is inevitable. An impending doom that’s both uncertain and yet inevitable – now doesn’t that sound familiar?

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About Ross Miller