I’ve been remiss, and in the process of reviewing obvious Oscar candidates and Winter blockbusters, I’ve delayed writing about one of the best films of the year until it is, doubtless, no longer playing at a theater near you.
The film is called Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead . It was directed by Sidney Lumet, 83 years old, who has proven again that he is a grand master. Though this is not, definitely not, a film for everyone. Some people, justifiably, don’t want to see a film that will upset them; and this is a film whose powerful emotions trouble the mind.
When finally cornered by bad luck and bad choices, some people collapse inwards like a wet paper box. Some straighten up their backbone and soldier through. And some bare their teeth like a rat in a trap. Andy, his trophy wife Gina (Marisa Tomei), and his brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) each represent one type. Which is which you’ll have to see for yourself.
Andy is a moderately successful real estate broker ("I make six figures," he proudly announces – you can tell by his wife’s guarded reaction that it’s low six-figures, not much for Manhattan). Andy has been doing something bad, to pay for something bad. I’d love to tell you what, exactly, but I want you to see for yourself. What we do know at the beginning is that Andy is one polished operator. His younger brother Hank, who is hard up and way behind on his child support, is no match for Andy when Big Brother wants something.
Andy sucks Hank into a seemingly foolproof, scheme. Watch how smooth Andy is with Hank, how he has staged every element of the conversation to make the conclusion inevitable. They – by they, Andy means Hank – will waltz into a mom and pop jewelry store Andy has cased, on a weekend morning just after opening. There are no security cameras or guards. The whole week’s take will be there, and Andy knows how to get into the safe. The loot is insured, so it’s a victimless crime. How does he know all this, Hank wonders? Because the mom and pop who own the store are their actual Mom and Pop.
As we expect in a movie like this, the heist goes to pieces with a bang. From a visual standpoint, the scene is rather stagey, almost hokey. I worried about the rest of the film.
But Lumet knows he doesn’t have to coat the screen with blood to achieve his effects. The film works because the heist, which in a more run-of-the-mill film would be one of the high points, is just the first turn of the screw. Lumet is interested in a different kind of violence: the powerful emotions, kept just barely under the surface, of a family in conflict; and the anxiety of being found out, as every decision seems to lead Andy and Hank further into a dark maze. Somehow, Lumet’s camera itself seems like a heavy weight above us, pinning us down.
You will be unable to take your eyes off Philip Seymour Hoffman. Andy is a study in contradictions, thoroughly ambiguous. We keep seeing new layers all the way to the film’s end. Credit the first time screenwriter, too, Kelly Masterson – there is not one beat of the plot, or line of dialog, out of place.
There is also a performance by the great Albert Finney, as the naughty boys’ father. The actor himself looks very frail as his character grieves for a lost wife. But the search for the killer animates him; and as the truth starts to bubble up like swamp gas, the horror of the situation comes fully clear, and oh, do we not want to be there when he finds out.