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Before The Devil Knows You Are Dead

December 6, 2012

(This post is being published as part of Scenes of the Crime blogathon under sub genre Mysteries and Thrillers. The last movie of one of the greatest American directors Sidney Lumet, a dark, brilliantly shot thriller, with a non linear narration. And featuring top notch performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney)


May your glass be ever full,
May the roof over your head be always strong,
And may you be in heaven
Half an hour before the devil knows you’re dead.- Irish Drinking Toast

Sidney  Lumet’s   Before  The  Devil  Knows  You  are  Dead,  starts  off  straight  with  a steamy scene, that  has  the  heroine  Gina  Hanson( Marisa  Tomei) being done by  her  husband, Andy Hanson(  Phillipe  Seymour  Hoffman).  It  does  look  a bit  incongruous  to  see  the  rather  gorgeous  looking  Gina  being done  in by the pot bellied, pudgy  looking Andy, making you  feel  how  she  ended  up  with  him.   Yep while it  can be  disconcerting to  watch  Hoffman’s  bare behind,   Ms. Tomei’s  full  Monty  more than  makes  up  for  it. The couple  has a  post  sex  talk in one of those  typical  L-Shaped  sheets, we get to see in Hollywood  movies.  As the rather  inconsequential  scene, fades  away,  that  is  where  we  come to the movie’s   critical  scene,  or  the  plot  point, around  which  the entire  movie  revolves.    We only  know a  robbery  is  going to be comitted,  and   soon enough   a  masked  intruder  holds up a jewelery  and diamond  store.  During  the  hold up, a shoot out  occurs  between an elderly lady, the  store  owner,  and  the  robber, with the latter being  shot  fatally  dead, while  the  lady  is  critically injured.
Sidney  Lumet takes  the  robbery  as  the  main plot device  to keep going to and fro, in a narrative  that  is  non linear, as  the  characters  and  the  motivations  come  slowly  into the  frame.   Ok first  things  first, Before  The Devil Knows You are  Dead is  not  an  easy  watch,  at  any stretch.   While  the  narrative  does  go  around  in  a non linear  fashion,  it is  easy  to  follow,   it  is  not  much  of  a mind bender,  as   the  character’s  motivations  become  quite  apparent.  There  are  no  big  twists  at  any  stage,  as  everything  does  proceed  on  conventional  lines,  and  even  the  ending while being  a shocker  is  not  a surprise,  it  was  something  one  could   see  coming,  if  we keep track  of  the  characters.   The  hard  part  in watching  it  is however  the  dark,  despairing  mood,  and  the  utterly  unsympathetic  characters.   The  mood  is  cynical  throughout,  offering no  hopes  for  redemption,  and  add to it a  slow  pace,   with silences,  that  can  quite  often  suffocate  the  viewer.   But  once  you  are prepared  to  handle  the dark mood  of  the  movie,  what  you  get  to  see  is a  masterpiece.
For  close  to  5  decades,  Sidney  Lumet has  been  making  some  of  the  greatest movies  ever.  Roger  Ebert calls  him a  “national  treasure”,   now  while  that  is  for  the  Americans  to  decide,  i  have  no  hesitation in calling  Lumet  a  cinematic  treasure,  words  like  genius,  maestro,  auteur  do  not  really  do  justice  to  this  brilliant  movie maker.   He  is  the director  who  created  some of  the  finest  legal  dramas,  12  Angry  Men, The Verdict,   brilliant cop dramas  like  Serpico,  Q&A,   crime  dramas  like  Dog  Day  Afternoon,  Anderson Tapes,    or  dark satires  like Network.   But  where  Lumet  scores  big  time  is  in  his  characterization,  the  characters  in  his  movies  are  fleshed  out  so  wonderfully. Like  a master  sculptor,  he  chisels  out  every  feature, every  part  of  the  character with  such  loving  detail,  right  down to  the  warts, and  like an  expert  pyschiatrist,  he  delves  deep into the  mind of  his characters,  reading  them,  decoding  their  motivations,  and  then  setting  up  the  relationships  between them.  Lumet’s  strength  has  been  the  human  persona  and the drama  revolving  around  people’s  actions.  More often  than  not,  his  movies  work  on a  character  intending to  perform  an  action,  and  the  result  ending  up  something more  than  what  they  imagined  for.
In a way  Before  The  Devil  Knows  You Are  Dead,  references  back  to  Lumet’s  earlier  Dog  Day  Afternoon, where  Al  Pacino’s   botched  up  bank robbery , spirals  into  events  that  go  out  of  control.  The  store  hold up  and  the  subsequent  shoot  out  that  leads  to  the  fatal  injury  to the elderly  lady,  is  what  sets  in  motion  a series  of  events,  which  was  not  what  was  intended to  happen.  The  critically  injured  lady  at  the  store  happens  to be  Nanette  Hanson,  the  mother  of   Andy and  his  brother Hank  Hanson( Ethan Hawke).  The  key here is  that  the  entire  store  robbery  was  Andy’s  own  baby,  and  that  is  where  the character’s  motivations  come  into  picture.  What  Lumet  has  done  here  is  to  pick  up  elements  of  the  noir, heist  genre,  and  set  it  against a dysfunctional  family backdrop.
The  only  characters  who  are  normal  and  likable  in  the  movie  is  their  father  Charlie  Hanson( Albert Finney),  and his wife  Nanette.   In  fact  Lumet  here  is  clearly  contrasting  the  loving  relation between  Charlie  and his wife, with  the  more  messed  up  lives  of  Andy  and  Hank.

The thing about real estate accounting is that you can, you can, add down the page or across the page and everything works out. Everyday, everything adds up. The, the total is always the sum of its parts. It’s, uh, clean. It’s clear. Neat, absolute. But my life, it, uh, it doesn’t add up. It, uh… Nothing connects to anything else. It’s, uh… I’m not, I’m not the sum of my parts. All my parts don’t add up to one… to one me, I guess.

On  the  surface  of  it,  Andy  appears  normal, he  has  a nice  job,  a nice  apartment, a  beautiful  trophy  wife,  and  manages  to  make it out  to  regular  vacations  abroad,  in  short  living  the  American  dream.   Beyond  the surface though  however  it  is  one  large  mess,   he  has  been  embezzling  money  from  his  company’s  account  to  finance his  cocaine  habit,  the  auditors  are   hot  on  his  heels.  Andy  yearns  for  his  father’s  love, whom he feels does  not understand him.  And  to  make   matters  worse,  his  wife  Gina,  feeling  repressed  carries  on an  affair with  his  brother  Hank.  In  short  Andy  hates  his  own  life,  and  it  is  clear  that  Gina  for  all the  humping on and  the lovey dovey  talk  in the  starting,   is  not  too  happy either.
Hank  on the  other  hand,  does  not  even   have a  pretense  to looking good.   He is divorced,   owes  a  large  amount  of  money  to his  ex  wife   Martha ( Amy  Ryan),    whom he  has to pay  for   child  support, and lives in a broken down  home.    He  is  so down on  his  luck,  that  he  does  not  even have  the money to  pay  for  his  daughter’s  school outing to  see  The  Lion  King,  prompting  her  to call  him  a  loser.   Andy  while  outwardly  successful  is  as much as a loser  as  Hanks  is.    It is just  that  he  happens  to be  more  smarter  and  more  devious.

But little Mouse, you are not alone,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often askew,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!- Robert  Burns

Again not  sure  if  Sidney  Lumet  has  ever  read  Burns,  or  been  inspired  by  him,  but  this  particular  couplet  sums up  the  main  theme.    Andy  makes  up  what  he  believes  is a   perfect  plan,   to  rob  his  parents  Jewelry  store,  and  then   split  the  money  up.    His  reasoning  is  based  on  what  he  “thinks”  are  the  conditions,  at  the   time of  the heist,  only  the  old  lady  Doris  would  be  there,  no  real guns  would  be  used,   and  add to  it, the  store  is  insured, so  his  parents  do  not   really  lose  anything.  In  essence,  Andy  believes  he  has  plotted  out  the  perfect  “crime”,  which  would  be a win-win  situation  for  all,  he  and  Hank  get  the  money,  his  parents  get  the  insurance  amount.   But  then  every  perfect  crime,   goes  wrong,  because  of  one   stupid  blunder,  and here  it is  Hank  who  messes it up,  when he  hires  Bobby  Lasorda,  an  expert  crook  to carry  out  the  heist.  Bobby  however  carries a  real gun, instead  of  the  toy  gun,  which  Andy   was planning  for.  Add  to  it,  the  old  lady  Doris  has  a day  off,  which results  in  their  mother   handling  the  store  that  fateful  day.   Andy  had  planned  the  “perfect  heist”,   but  it  has  gone  awry,  mainly  due  to  the  blunder  made  by  Hank,  as  also  fate ensuring  that  his  mother  would be the one in the store, with  tragic  consequences.

Sorry’ ain’t gonna pay the bills, Chico!

Andy’s  perfect  planning,  foresight  everything  goes  for  a  toss,  as  it  sets  into a motion a  chain of events,  each  threatening  to  pull  the  brothers  deeper  into  an  abyss.   Bobby’s   brother  in  law,  Dex(  Michael  Shannon),  begins  to  blackmail   Hank,  to  pay  for  his  sister, Chris, who  happens to be  Bobby’s  widow.   Andy’s  superiors at work,  are  now  hot  on  his  neck,  demanding  to  know  of   the  irregularities  in   his  department’s  accounts.   Add to  it,  the  marriage  between  Gina  and  Andy  goes  further  down.  And  above all  Charlie  not  satisfied  with the  police  investigation,  decides  to  dig  deeper  on  his  own.
Watching  the  movie  is  like  going  along  with the  characters   deep  into  an  abyss, there  appears  to be no  respite  from  the  unending coldness,  the  darkness, the  despair.  Every  action  initiated  by  Andy,  triggers  another  crisis,  that   just  drags  him  and  us  deeper  down.  And  the  fact  that  Hank’s   hair brained  responses  at  times,  is   a  reason,  does  not  really  make  things   better.    We  helplessly  watch  the  lives  of  Andy  &  Hank,  hurtling  down and down.    But  much  as  we  want  to  empathize  with  them,   we  cannot.  Unlike  in Dog  Day  Afternoon,  where  we  do end  up  sympathizing  with  Pacino’s   character,  here   we  feel  no  remorse  for  them.   We  want  to  feel  sorry  for  Andy  in  the  scene, where he  breaks  down  in  the car  while  driving  with  Gina,  but then  we  know  that  he  was one who  had  manipulated  his  brother  into  the  situation.   We  want to feel sorry  for  the  loser  Hank, but  then we see that  his  idiotic  actions  are  what  keeps  precipitating the  crisis  further  and  further.
For  the  first  time  ever,  Lumet  shoots  the  entire  movie  in HD,  that  gives  the movie, it’s  rather  shadowy, dark feel,  keeping  with  the  mood  of  the  plot.    To me this movie  would  be  one  of  the  best  in  the  Noughties  ever,  matter   of   fact,  i  feel  2007   was  the  best  ever  year  in terms  of  quality, we  had  this  , There Will Be Blood,  No  Country  for Old Men, Michael  Clayton.  It  is  tragic,  dark  and  depressing,  but  it  is  not  a movie  that  would  leave  your  memories.   It  is  at  one  level  a  heist  flick,   but  at  a  deeper  level,  it  is a  fascinating  character  study  set  against   a  dysfunctional  family  backdrop,  and  a  crime  gone  wrong  scenario.    The  movie  is  also  served  by  some of  the  finest  ensemble  acting  ever  in a long  time.
Philip  Seymour  Hoffman,  once  again  shows  his  talent,  in a  role  that mixes  a  devious  mind with a vulnerable  side.  Especially  brilliant  in the  part, where  he  breaks down  in  the car.   Ethan Hawke,  going  far  away  from his  pretty  boy  image,  is  first  rate,  playing   a  grungy  loser,  whose  actions,  precipitate  a further  descent  into  an abyss.  Albert  Finney as  usual, packs  an  emotional  wallop,  as  their  distraught  father,  dealing  with  his wife’s  death,  watch  his  expressions  in  the  final  scene,  it  hits  you somewhere.    Marisa  Tomei, though not  having  a major  part, nevertheless  does  well,  and  this has  to be  one  of  her  sexiest  on  screen  performance,  maybe  after The Wrestler.
  1. I would also recommend you to watch Before Sunrise and Before Sunset of Ethan Hawk. Watch it in same sequence and give some 2-3 months gap between both. (if u haven't already) beautiful true romantic movie.

  2. Nice movie. I like the acting part the most impressive one. Each of the character has performed well. This movie is full of emotions and at times touched my heart.Before the Devil Knows You're Dead Movie

  3. Fine review. I have to admit to not seen this Lumet film. That’s bad of me and I must rectify. Thanks for the heads up.

  4. Well, I came straight to this film and post because I love this film and think it’s vastly underrated and not known by far too many. I previously did a post myself on Sidney Lumet, one of my favorite directors and commented on how he ended his career as he started it, with the highest quality film. AS affecting as 12 Angry Men, by my estimation. Needless to say, I’m very happy to see it get some attention in this event. Great choice!


    • Thank you very much for the kind words. Yes it is one of Lumet’s best movies, very dark,nihilistic, with no let up in the intensity.

  5. A truly dark and disturbing movie with some of the most brilliant performances ever…One of Lumet’s best.

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