Review: Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

By Brandon Scott

June 22, 2008

Asking a father for his daughter's hand in marriage is never easy.

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Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is a solid psychological crime thriller with a capable, Oscar-caliber cast. The plot revolves around brothers Andy and Hank Hanson's opportunistic crime, an innocent robbery that hopes to leave them with naturally thicker pockets where nobody is truly victimized. Philip Seymour Hoffman's Andy, who hatches the seemingly perfect scheme to presumably help cure him of some personal demons, recruits his hapless brother, Hank (a manic Ethan Hawke) to do the dirty work. But this seemingly easy Mom and Pop job (a jewelry store) left in Hank's hands leads to disastrous results. The ensuing drama is not so much in the robbery plot but the characters' desperation as they begin to lose their footing and their lives unspool in a vicious cycle.

Directed by the venerable Sidney Lumet (Dog Day Afternoon) Devil is presented in an out of order puzzle, similar to Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, where the viewer has to put the pieces back together into a chronological framework. This serves as an effective pace setter that keeps the audience off kilter. For a director known for shooting primarily in New York, he allows the city to serve as no more than a backdrop here, not like a living, breathing character as has been displayed in some of his past films.

An eager cast brings the story to life. This one allows the mischievous Hoffman to take advantage of his considerable acting range. His Andy evolves from troubled real estate accountant to self-loathing husband to sadistic son with sometimes less than subtle notes. Though the robbery serves as the plot's centerpiece, it's Andy's surprising unraveling that keeps the film rooted in human drama. This one plays more like Glengarry Glen Ross than Serpico.


All of the characters are tortured, though the script leaves a few of them less than fully realized. Hawke, as the bumbling brother Hank, is great when desperate but perhaps a bit too one note when it comes to his being intimidated by nearly anyone he comes across. A sad and distant Marisa Tomei is essentially window dressing here but a pretty and revealing one at that, as Hank's two timing wife, Gina. Albert Finney rounds out the cast as Charles Hanson, playing both part grieving Father to the boys and part detective in another slightly one-note role. All give solid performances throughout although they seem sliced from a too familiar pie.

While the actors do their best to pull the words from the page to screen, it's newbie Kelly Masterson's script that essentially holds them back. Though he may be one to look out for in the future, these characters are drawn in too predictable a style and Lumet relies on a useful but probably unnecessary editing style that a tighter script wouldn't fall victim to. While it's an entertaining ride that will leave you guessing the outcome to the very end, it still leaves you a little hollow, wondering what could have been with the incredible cast that was here to represent. Three out of four stars.



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