As I’m sure you’re all well aware, one of our generation’s finest actors, Philip Seymour Hoffman, recently died of an apparent heroin overdose at the age of 46. Hoffman had suffered from drug and alcohol adduction during his younger years, but went into rehab after graduating college and managed to stay clean for over 20 years. In May 2013, he had a relapse and checked back into rehab, but unfortunately, it didn’t seem to be enough. In tribute to the actor, I wanted to cover one of his most underrated films, Sidney Lumet’s 2007 crime drama, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. In spite of already having seen the film three times, I had completely forgotten about the fact that Hoffman’s character was a drug addict and there’s even an elongated scene where he shoots up and tries to express the inadequacies of his own life to his disinterested dealer. In light of recent events, the scene was quite unsettling to watch, but it added an extra layer of pathos to what was already a dramatically potent crime thriller.
In 2005, Sidney Lumet received an Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement, which is often the Academy’s way of apologizing for never giving a renowned filmmaker a “Best Director” Oscar. You wouldn’t expect an 80-year old director to follow that honour up with one of the most challenging projects of his career, but that’s exactly what Lumet did with Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. This is a heist picture which is less concerned about the heist and more concerned about the emotional consequences involved when things go horribly wrong.
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead opens with a masked man attempting to rob an elderly lady named Nanette (Rosemary Harris) at a mom-and-pop jewelry store in New York City. However, the heist turns into a complete disaster when both parties wind up being shot. The film uses a non-linear flashback structure to show the build-up to this robbery from the point-of-view of three different characters: Nanette’s husband, Charles (Albert Finney), the owner of the jewelry store; Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the mastermind behind the heist; and Hank (Ethan Hawke), who is supposed to carry out the robbery, but screws things up in a huge way when he involves an outside accomplice. Of course, the big twist here is that Andy and Hank are brothers and that the owners of the jewelry store just happen to be their own parents. The two brothers are in terrible financial trouble: Andy is a drug addict who has been embezzling funds from his company and Hank is way behind on his child support payments. They both need money so badly that they’re willing to rob their own family business because they figure the insurance will take care of their parents and no one will get hurt. Of course, when Nanette winds up being shot, Andy and Hank are forced to cover up their wrongdoing while dealing with the extreme guilt and emotional stress of the situation.
There are many other complications in this story. Andy is married to a woman named Gina (Marisa Tomei), who also happens to be having an affair with Hank. The psychotic brother-in-law (Michael Shannon) of Hank’s accomplice wants a piece of the action and threatens blackmail. But worst of all, Charles becomes obsessed with the idea that there were multiple people involved with the robbery of his store and will soon be horrified to discover that his own sons were involved. These elements on their own would be enough to turn Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead into a solid crime thriller, but the story has a lot more depth than that. The screenplay was written by playwright Kelly Masterson, who struggled for years to get the project made. However, in the original version of his script, Andy and Hank were merely friends. But once the script found its way into the hands of Sidney Lumet, he decided that changing the two characters into brothers would add so much more weight to the story. In some ways, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead feels like a dysfunctional family tale disguised as a heist thriller. We gradually learn that Andy’s idea to rob his father’s store is not just borne out of a need for money, but a genuine animosity towards Charles. Even though Charles seems to have a genuine love for his wife, it’s apparent that he’s always had a hard time expressing that same love towards his children and was particularly rough on Andy. After a heated confrontation with his father, Andy suffers a complete emotional breakdown which reveals so much about his wounded character.
Even though the film features solid performances from the entire cast, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is Philip Seymour Hoffman’s movie. 2007 was a banner year for the actor, who delivered acclaimed performances in The Savages, Charlie Wilson’s War and this movie. On the surface, Andy seems like the kind of person who has everything going for him, but obviously has deep emotional wounds and a self-destructive nature. Since Hank has always been known as a complete screw-up, you almost wonder if Andy was secretly yearning for failure when he recruited his brother for the heist. Some of Hoffman’s standout moments include the unsettling heroin scene, his aforementioned emotional breakdown over his father, and a brilliant sequence where the zombie-like Andy responds to his wife’s departure by trashing his house in the most lifeless manner possible. It goes without saying that Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead will never be considered a great feel-good movie and anyone who goes into it expecting a traditional lightweight heist picture is going to be taken aback. This is a movie which builds up tension with a mounting sense of dread rather than traditional suspense. The question isn’t whether the characters are going to get away with it, but how badly their downward spiral is going to go. But it’s a credit to the talent of everyone involved that the viewer is still interested in the fates of these sad, unpleasant characters. Sidney Lumet passed away in 2011 and Before the Devil the Knows You’re Dead is a very good swan song for his illustrious career. But it also functions as one of the strongest, most poignant displays of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman’s talent and he will be greatly missed.