Directed by: Sidney Lumet
Premise: A pair of brothers (Ethan Hawke and Phillip Seymour Hoffman), each with financial trouble, plan to hold up their parent’s jewelry store, knowing that the cash and goods will clear up their debts and the insurance company will take care of their parents. When the heist goes bad, other tensions rise to the surface and tear the family apart.
What Works: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is primarily the story of the relationship between a father and his two sons, and all three of the lead male actors are great in their roles. Ethan Hawke and Phillip Seymour Hoffman play unlikely looking brothers, but the dynamics between the characters are very good and the film’s incremental reveal of the troubles in these men’s lives and the reversal of their ethical authority over one another are very well done. Hoffman in particular is good, as he changes from a smooth career businessman into a frantic killer. Albert Finney is also terrific as the father of these two men and his heartbreak over the loss of his wife and the betrayal by his sons sells the tragedy of the film. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is told in a nonlinear fashion and the picture works extremely well this way, using captions to place the viewer in a specific place on the timeline. This helps the viewing considerably, as it keeps the audience from having to figure out where we are and allows them to concentrate on what is happening in the scene. The editing is very skillful and uses thoughtful juxtaposition between scenes to make the story more gripping and tell it more economically than it would be if the film were told straightforward.
What Doesn’t: The relationship between Hoffman’s character and his wife (Marisa Tomei) could be done better. Tomei is a solid actress and she brings a lot of character to the underwritten role. Still, there are wasted opportunities to build upon the betrayal within the family and flesh out Tomei’s character’s relationship within the family.
Bottom Line: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is a very strong film. It’s not easy to watch and is unrelentingly dark but it is so well executed that the excellence of the film is impossible to ignore.
Episode: #178 (February 10, 2008)