Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

Crime drama

  • Written by Kelly Masterson
  • Directed by Sidney Lumet

What fascinates us about crimes going horribly wrong? There’s Double Indemnity, One False Move, A Simple Plan and most movies by the Coen Brothers. Now Sidney Lumet, probably our oldest working film director, tries his hand with Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. And even he’s tried this before.

The film begins with a horribly inept armed robbery. Serious blood is spilt. That wasn’t supposed to happen. When two brothers (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke–you can’t ask for better actors) set out to rob their parents’ jewelry store, it was supposed to be a victimless crime. Only the insurance company would be hurt. But the best-laid plans of amateur crooks–¦

Screenwriter Kelly Masterson flashes back and forward in time to show us what led up to and resulted from the robbery, all from different points of view. These time and point-of-view jumps are old hat now–we’re no longer amazed to watch one character talk on the phone, and then later experience the same call from the other end. But that’s okay; talking and color were once gimmicks, but they eventually became part of the cinematic vocabulary. Masterson and Lumet use that vocabulary well, bringing us into one character’s world, and then into another’s, revealing everything at the right time and never losing us in the complex structure.

I mentioned the Coen Brothers earlier, but don’t expect a Fargo-like entertainment. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is dead serious drama, more like Bergman with guns than standard Hollywood fare. Masterson and Lumet want you to experience what’s it’s like to have your entire world fall apart slowly, bit by bit, and know that it’s because you did something very stupid and very, very wrong.

In addition to Hoffman and Hawke, the film also stars Albert Finney as their father and Marisa Tomei as Hoffman’s character’s wife (with whom Hawke’s character is having an affair). They also give excellent performances.

Hoffman, Hawke, and Tomei all do nude scenes (Tomei does them with each lead actor). Hawke and Tomei both make excellent eye candy, and you have to admire Hoffman’s courage in showing his far-from-buff body in the buff.