Hidden Gems: Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
By Kyle Lee
March 14, 2018
“May you be in heaven a full half-hour before the devil knows you’re dead.”
When Philip Seymour Hoffman died four years ago, he was the best actor working in movies and had been for quite a while. He was powerful when he needed to be, charismatic even, funny, but often played creeps and weirdos, or bullies and smarmy assholes. He could play it all. His one team up with the legendary Sidney Lumet for 2007’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead was some of the best work of either’s career, which is saying something considerable. The story of two brothers, Hoffman and Ethan Hawke, who try to rob a jewelry store, only for everything to go wrong is one of the best crime dramas that not enough people have seen. It was to be Lumet’s last movie, as he died four years later at age 86 from lymphoma, but what a swansong this movie was for him.
Directed by the Lumet, 50 years after his directorial debut 12 Angry Men announced him as a bright new talent, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is both a fascinating character study of a disintegrating family, and a terrifically suspenseful crime thriller. Hank (Hawke) is 3 months behind on his child support payments, and his older brother Andy (Hoffman) is in trouble with the IRS for embezzling countless dollars from his employer. Andy's wife Gina (Marisa Tomei) complains that he doesn't open up to her the way he did on their vacation to Rio, and Andy thinks maybe they could start over their life by moving there. Andy comes to Hank one day with a proposition, a mom and pop jewelry store robbery where they'll use toy guns so that there's no chance of anybody getting hurt, the owners will be taken care of by insurance, and the overall haul should be around $600,000, more than enough for both of them to fix their problems. Hank says that it sounds like a victimless crime, so he agrees to pull the job.
I'll stop plot description there because one of the movies many pleasures is the way it slowly reveals the complete happenings of how the robbery goes spectacularly wrong. I will say that it shows remarkable confidence from first time screenwriter Kelly Masterson that the robbery is not the climax of the story, but the catalyst for it.
The casting of Hawke and Hoffman as brothers seems wrong at first, but the movie uses it as an advantage to show the opposing effect that each brother has within the family, Hoffman as the first born, and Hawke as the baby. They also work so well with each other that you feel the sense of history and brotherly connection that Hank and Andy share. Andy has always felt like an outsider, and Hank has always been the good son, the baby. The two men have grown up to be very different people, but the brotherly connection is surprisingly very strong from the actors.
Hawke should be commended for his fine work here as Hank. Most actors would shy away from the role of the obviously weaker brother, but Hawke completely nails Hank as the inadequate scared little boy in over his head. Marisa Tomei, who looks better at 43 than she did at 27, when she burst onto the scene in My Cousin Vinny, does her best work to date as Gina, Andy’s wife, a role that easily could've been played as the standard secondary "wife" character. She and Hoffman actually feel like a married couple having problems, and not like a movie married couple whom the screenwriters have given hurdles to jump over. A lesser actress's performance would've been gobbled up by how powerfully incredible Hoffman is in his role, but Tomei's secret lies in her reactions and subtleties rather than any "big moment" type histrionics. Albert Finney also does superbly subtle work as Andy and Hank's father Charles, who has as much at stake as his boys do. There’s also a small part here from Michael Shannon, as the brother-in-law of the guy Hawke’s Hank hires to help him pull the job. Shannon is electric in the role, and it was the first time I’d seen him in anything. I’m glad that he’s shown us over and over again that it was no fluke.
But Hoffman is the star here. He has two key scenes of great power, one opposite Hawke as they're trying to cover up their tracks at a drug dealers house (the tension is palpable in that sequence), and the other while in the car with Tomei. In that scene, you see Andy's emotional armor come down for a minute and he gives us years of hurt, disappointment, self-pity, and most of all anger before we can see in Hoffman's eyes as Andy's armor goes back up and he drives away (Tomei looking like she's never seen her husband before). It's the best scene in the movie, and probably the best scene that either actor ever played. Andy has been nagged by Gina about his growing coldness, as Andy is preoccupied with trying to cover his tracks for the terrible things he’s done. It all started so that he and Gina could start over in Brazil, get a fresh start, but as the movie goes on it seems like everything is falling apart to the point that Andy and Gina may not be together, if even still alive.
Sidney Lumet had such a great varied career as a filmmaker. He wrote a book, Making Movies, that many filmmakers like George Clooney have said they use to guide them even today. His masterpieces range from the previously mentioned 12 Angry Men, to The Pawnbroker, Serpico, Murder on the Orient Express, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Prince of the City, The Verdict, Running on Empty, and then here with Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. Few directors can claim as many great movies, and that’s even leaving out plenty that other people would classify as greats. He directed 17 Oscar nominated performances, with four wins. He himself was nominated 4 times as Best Director, and was given an honorary Oscar as well, but is rarely mentioned alongside the Hitchcock's and Scorsese's of the movie world. I think it's because as a director, his style was always to serve the story and the actors before anything else; so that's what people remember from his movies. Many people come out of watching Before the Devil Knows You're Dead talking about how great the ensemble of actors is, how ingenious the plotting of the movie is, how tightly wound so much of the suspense is, but don't forget that the master behind the camera was just as deserving of praise for putting those things on the screen as well. Let’s hope his Hidden Gems like this become less hidden as time goes on.