"It will be a snap. No violence, no problems."

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

            When fine actors wrap us in the magic of their art, everything in our real lives – good or bad – fades away for two hours, leaving us in the world they are creating. In the case of “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” the acting does just that even though the material is relentlessly dark. The subject matter is ruthless to our hopes for redemption, but try as we may to dismiss the darkness, we can’t. Why? Partly because the movie is directed by Sidney Lumet. This script, this cast, and this director simply will not let go of their audience.

            Andy (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) loves his wife Gina (a terrific Marisa Tomei). Director Lumet surprises us by opening his film with a marital love scene in all its nakedness before we even know who these people are. But we soon learn. Andy is a payroll manager with some entrenched habits that require cash – right now.

            Andy’s brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) is a deadbeat dad who owes three months of child support to his ex-wife Martha (Amy Ryan). Andy holds rank in this sibling situation; he will call the shots; he develops a family plan, a solution. We know already it wouldn’t occur to these men to solve their problems with a second job or a bank loan. When strapped for money, rob a store.

            As he pitches the idea to his brother, Andy proudly describes the brilliance of the concept: they will rob a store they know well. They know that it will be empty; they know where the valuable stuff is; they know the owners will recoup through insurance. It will be a snap. No violence, no problems. But Hank, weakening, hires an outsider as an accomplice. The accomplice makes the slip that sends everything hurtling off the track. As human beings, all three are weak; as criminals, they are all third rate. Hank has a miniscule conscience that stops him just short of succeeding as a thief and yet it never surfaces strongly enough to change the outcome. It’s all in the details, and they get the details wrong. Clever moves were planned by unclever men.

            We are dealing with classic elements: family strife, money, conscience. All of these are at play in this family brought down by the first tipped domino. As the father of the weak sons, Albert Finney carries the moral weight of the story. Are we dealing with punishment or redemption? How did the family downfall begin? The trigger was the facile solution to problems that require something more. These actors disappear inside their characters with a collective intensity that is devastating.

            There is simply no way to recommend this movie as pleasure in any form; but if you relish being transported by acting, writing, construction, and direction, there is a good chance you will be captivated by its strengths. I won’t say that you will be happy when you leave, but you’ll be impressed.


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