April 10, 2008

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead Review


Length: 123 min

No one was supposed to get hurt.
Loyalty. It’s all relative.

Précis: A well-made and thrilling crime drama that is painful and difficult to enjoy.

Review by Matt:

The Irish saying goes: “May you have half an hour in heaven before the Devil knows you’re dead”. If you have such fortune, I urge you not to spend any of that time watching this film; it is the furthest thing from an instructional manual on how to enjoy your precious distracted-Devil minutes. Veteran director Sidney Lumet’s latest thriller is covered with the fingerprints of a filmmaker who knows his craft, but it is bleak, violent and depressing.

The plot centres on the events surrounding a jewellery store heist and the family it affects. The heist is plotted by joyless property accountant Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his craven younger brother Hank (Ethan Hawke). Both have their problems and both are desperate for fast cash. Also sucked into the debacle are the brothers’ parents, Charles (Albert Finney) and Nanette (Rosemary Harris), as well as a contested lover (Marisa Tomei). The heist itself is so fleeting it is almost a McGuffin. This is no Ocean’s Eleven. Lumet is not interested in thrilling us with the danger, genius or comedy involved in pulling off a heist. He is instead intent on dredging through the conditions that led to the crime, the motivations of the characters involved, and its messy aftermath.

What a sordid affair it is. Even the opening sex scene, which presumably represents the brief moment of heaven before the Devil cottons on, is graphic and grotty. We start to feel very early that we’re in a quicksand from which there is no escape. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is ultimately concerned with familial relationships. Many clues point at the family’s stack of emotional baggage, but these bags are never opened for us. The film also employs an unconventional narrative style, jumping through time and between the perspectives of the characters. This gives us a wide view of the twists and turns in the heavy plot. But this view doesn’t illuminate the crucial emotional detail that could let us identify with our protagonists. Instead some of their actions seem incredible. We feel distanced, like we’re watching some unknown shapes sinking on the horizon.

I won’t deny that this film is structured well and it grips us firmly. Lumet has also evoked quality performances from his cast. Only, in his service their powers are mainly used to heighten the sense of doom. Philip Seymour Hoffman is brilliantly sad, sick and manipulative. He bottles up these poisons in his character, with only the occasional judicious release. Check out his muted trashing-the-house ‘tantrum’.

But having acknowledged these strengths, I have to quietly move away from the crowd of critics who laud this film. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead didn’t give me the ‘why’. Why has Lumet drawn us into this wasteland? Scene after scene crashes on us. Characters sink deeper into pain and disgrace. I can see that, ok, bad choices can hurt, plans can unravel terribly, and people can be weak, greedy and selfish. Watching this crumbling family didn’t tell me anything more meaningful than that. If it was supposed to present some original perspective on morality, I think the message sunk in the depressing cesspool. Maybe you’ll enjoy the thrills, the intensity, the performances. These things are great. But to really have an enjoyable time watching this corrosive tale, I needed a payoff that had more subtlety and had some meaning at its heart.



  1. I agree with most of this, but I thought it was a great, great film.

  2. What did you think redeemed it Nick?

  3. i think that this was a great film. it taught a lot about how things can spiral out of control when you least expect them to. the way to hell is definately paved by good intentions and that is why one has to try and be in heaven for half an hour before the devil knows your dead. Great film!!!

  4. ..it looked like life – messy and dramatic – ecstatic and dreadful .. badass cast – simply can’t go wrong with P.S. Hoffman .. has one of those wtf? endings that forces you to imagine what the hell happened next (mainly with Hank) .. i guess i tend to prefer this type of ending to those with neat little bows – makes me feel like it’s not even really a movie – just another curious chapter in the Eternal Novel..

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