❉ A sinister neo-noir starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke.
2007 was a phenomenal year for the cinematic arts, and one of the absolute best films released 13 years ago was Sidney Lumet’s powerful, absorbing crime thriller Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, which has recently been released as a spiffy special edition from Shout! Select. Lumet, the master New York filmmaker from the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, made one of his finest (and definitely one of his bleakest) movies with this edgy, nasty descent into the junkie-criminal psyche, and it served as a further reminder that Philip Seymour Hoffman was one of the richest actors on the planet before his untimely demise. The fact that he played a smacked-out loser only heightens the seemingly careless, real world tragedy that he suffered; in retrospect the pairing of artist with material is almost too ironic and poignant to fully contemplate.
The success of the film was due in no small part to playwright Kelly Masterson’s brilliant debut screenplay, which mixed violence, family dynamics, and bitter anger into a sinister brew of neo-noir with shades of a Shakespearean morality tale. This is a film with a cold, cold heart, and featured a typically stunning lead performance from Hoffman and excellent work from the terrific ensemble cast, including Ethan Hawke, Marisa Tomei, Albert Finney, and Rosemary Harris. Dark and tragic, the film is non-linear in ways we’ve seen before in the genre, but it still feels fresh and invigorating, and between Masterson’s perfectly pitched plotting and incisive dialogue combined with Lumet’s steady directorial hand, you’re allowed to somehow enjoy the mean-spirited narrative that Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead places in front of the audience.
Hoffman is Andy, an angry, troubled businessman, nursing a heroin addiction, always scheming and plotting. He’s married to Gina (the infinitely sexy Tomei, who seemingly gets hotter as she ages) but their relationship is strained for a variety of reasons. What Andy doesn’t know is that Gina is sleeping with his brother Hank (a stressed, seedy, finicky Ethan Hawke), who himself has a nasty ex-wife (Amy Ryan, in another scene stealing supporting performance from 2007 after her amazing work in Gone Baby Gone) who wants nothing more than the child support checks. Andy and Hank are prime fuck-ups to the extreme, but the worst kind of fuck-ups – the sort who think they can actually commit the “perfect crime.” Andy devises a plan to knock off a small jewelry store in the middle of a Westchester County shopping mall, with the kicker being that their parents own the shop. Andy tells Hank that it’s the perfect crime; they’ll get the cash and jewels, and their parents will get the insurance money. If only crime was that simple.
When the robbery goes awry, and someone is unexpectedly shot, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead takes one dark turn after another, leading us to its grimly inevitable final moments. Coming off like a spiritual and thematic cousin to Joel and Ethan Coen’s masterpiece Fargo, Masterson weaves together a gross portrait of regular people bungling crime; these sad-sacks are so inept that you will be screaming at them in your head to stop making such poor decisions. Small details are set up towards the beginning of the film, all of which come full circle by the end. Lumet, in films such as Serpico, Network, Prince of the City, and Dog Day Afternoon, was always after character and motivation within his NYC-set stories, and here, he had some truly evil people to explore, constantly picking at their emotional scabs to discover the boiling puss underneath.
The rage and intensity that Hoffman brought to the role of Andy is a force to be reckoned with; nobody yelled like Hoffman and you can taste his breath and spit and sweat in every explosive frame that he occupies in this film. Hawke, in a difficult role, also gave one of the best performances of his long and varied career. His weaker brother character was so finely etched and so manically portrayed that, in a weird way, you slightly feel bad for the dolt. Well…almost feel bad. And Finney, who nailed every single scene he appeared in, yet again proved how effective and perfect he was as an actor, even with just a small exchange of dialogue or a nod of his head. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is one of those thrillers that constantly surprises the audience with its low-key demeanor and simple set-up, and as the movie rolls along, and as all of the dastardly pieces start to come together, it’s then that you realize how insanely cruel it all really is, and how bankrupt all of the characters are at their cores.
And by the time the pitch-black ending arrives, you’ll have sweaty palms and possibly a new respect for family values. Lumet and Masterson aren’t afraid to depict reprehensible characters, and like Fargo, there’s distinct pleasure in watching these corrupt people go about their foul deeds. Never show-offy or in your face (Lumet directed this film, his final effort, at the age of 83), Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is an old-school crime thriller that quietly sneaks up on you and grabs you by the throat. The Blu-ray presentation from Shout! Select is excellent, with an appropriately icy and desaturated 1.85:1 visual transfer which looks just as it did when it was projected on screens. The special features are illuminating, and include new interviews with Hawke and Masterson, as well as an older audio commentary track from Lumet, Hoffman, and Hawke that was imported from a previous physical media release.
❉ ‘‘Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead’ is available in US & Canada on Blu-Ray from Shout! Factory: https://www.shoutfactory.com/product/before-the-devil-knows-you-re-dead?product_id=7330
❉ Nick Clement is a journalist for Variety Magazine and motion picture screenplay consultant, as well as a critic for websites We Are Cult and Back to the Movies. He wrote the introduction to the book Double Features: Big Ideas in Film, which was published by The Great Books Foundation, and is currently working on a book about the life and work of filmmaker Tony Scott. He lives in Connecticut with his wife and son.