Though I am quoting only from memory, and therefore paraphrasing, when William Hurt asks convicted arsonist Mickey Rourke to help him set a fire in Body Heat, Rourke replies, 'When you set out to do a felony, a thousand things can go wrong, and you're a genius if you can think of ten, and you ain't no genius." The main characters in Sidney Lumet's propulsive Before the Devil Knows You're Dead could have benefited from Rourke's advice because they set out to commit an unforgivably irresponsible felony, and they ain't no geniuses. Written by Kelly Masterson, Before the Devil starts in the middle and moves around in time like something constructed by Quentin Tarantino. The picture opens with action sequences: sex followed by crime. In the latter, a masked gunman enters a strip-mall jewelry store just as it is about to open. The robber holds his pistol on the elderly woman inside as he raids the cash drawer, smashes open the display cases and dumps their glittering contents into a duffle bag. But when he turns his back for instant, the lady pulls her own gun and the two blast each other into the next life.
The picture then winds backwards to account for how we get to the moment of mayhem. We learn these details, moreover, from multiple points of view, mostly those of the two fatally foolish brothers who planned the caper. The 'brains" of the operation is Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a real estate accountant with problems at home. He's in love with his wife Gina (Marisa Tomei) but has been having sexual performance failures of late, perhaps because Gina yearns for a lifestyle more luxurious than he can quite afford. The idea of the robbery proceeds from Andy's desire to treat Gina to first-class vacations where their lovemaking is intense and successful.
The 'hands" of the heist is supposed to be Andy's younger brother Hank (Ethan Hawke), who has child support worries and other financial problems of his own. Hank is supposed to be the gunman but chickens out and talks another man into the job. Andy's scheme is seriously complicated by the fact that the jewelry business belongs to the brothers' parents. Still Andy argues in support of his plot, saying that Hank knows his way around the store, knows where the alarm button is located and knows his mother. What can go wrong? The boys will get the loot, and an insurance company will cover their parents' losses. Nobody gets hurt, and the boys will have some badly needed cash. But, of course, everything goes wrong, and the robbers are suddenly being hunted by the police, by the brother-in-law of their dead accomplice and by their own father (Albert Finney).
The 83-year-old Lumet has made a huge list of important films, The Pawn Broker, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Equus and The Verdict, just to name a quick handful. In the process, he has worked with a galaxy of great stars, Rod Steiger, Al Pacino, Faye Dunaway, Peter Finch, William Holden, Richard Burton and Paul Newman among them. He's known in the industry as an actor's director, a filmmaker who casts with a canny eye and trusts his players to deliver the goods. They have rewarded his trust with one award and award nomination after another. He may be in his ninth decade, but he hasn't lost a step in this regard. Hoffman often plays an icy, soulless villain, but here he's a sweaty mess of miscalculation. Hawke has searched for a screen persona that he hasn't ever quite found, but he's excellent in this character role, a weak man unable to stand up to his brother's domineering. Finney is always good, and though I would still love to see him in another leading role, I admire the way he's sustained a career, as here, by contributing finely tuned characters in support. Tomei is just terrific, utterly fearless, convincing, irritating and affecting in a role that requires her to play half her scenes while naked. If there's an award nomination in the offing for this film, the first one will go to Tomei.
What will stymie this film is the absence of the kind of social concerns that Lumet usually brings to his work. In the end, the picture isn't really about anything except exasperating folly, an amoral thriller in the tradition of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels or Layercake. It's bullet fast though, and the mesmerizing portrayals of human train wrecks by Hoffman, Hawke, Finney and Tomei defy you to turn away.
- 2007 THINK Film
- Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) convinces Hank (Ethan Hawke) to attempt what seems like a perfect crime.