By Matt Singer
[Photo: Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Sidney Lumet’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” ThinkFilm, 2007]
Sidney Lumet’s new film begs the question: which is more important, family or money? Everyone in his pitch-black thriller and morality tale needs cash, and they all have to go to others to get it. Marisa Tomei’s character comes to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s, Hoffman’s goes to Ethan Hawke’s, Hawke’s someone else’s, and so on. If, as the title suggests, the characters would do best to get to heaven half an hour before the devil know they’re dead, one can only assume that the devil is a debt collector.
Hoffman and Hawke play brothers Andy and Hank. In order to secure the finances they both need they plan a jewelry store burglary. Eventually, we learn the store belongs to their mother and father, played by Albert Finney and Rosemary Harris. It takes a truly demented sort of person to rob your own parents; Andy in particular is just that sort. What better place to toss, he reasons, than one you know intimately, down to the locations of all the hidden alarms. Plus, he reasons that his parents are insured for anything he pinches. It’s crazy, but maybe not that crazy.
The film has a hopscotchy structure; bouncing back and forth between before and after the heist, as well as between the perspectives of the characters. Though some of the temporal knots are just for show the film goes out of our way to explain how a door buzzer got busted without explaining why we should care but others enrich our understanding of not only the characters themselves, but of their own understanding of each other. To younger brother Hank, Andy is a put-together businessman who exudes charm and confidence. From Andy’s side of those meetings, he’s barely holding things together between drug fixes.
The material is familiar territory for Lumet; one of his very best pictures, “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975) also pushed damaged characters and families to the foreground of a heist-gone-wrong. Lumet’s twist in “Before the Devil” is to push the characters so deep into darkness that the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t even visible. Melancholy as the criminals in “Dog Day” were, they have nothing on Andy and Hank, as well as Finney’s Charles, whose veneer of grandfatherly suffering is further wiped away with each jump in perspective. By the end of the film all three men have done horrible things to each other; the family is so twisted, they make the Sopranos look like the Kennedys.
The cast is superb, as you’d expect from masters like Hoffman, Hawke, and Finney, but even the smaller roles make big impressions, like Tomei impressively naked (both emotionally and physically) as Andy’s long-suffering wife and “Bug”‘s Michael Shannon as Dex, who is at once a terrifying heavy and the most oddly sympathetic and reasonable character in the film. Auteurists who look down their noses at Lumet’s half-century career can reject him on the grounds of his seeming lack of distinctive visual technique, but that sort of tunnel vision ignores his almost unparalleled skill with actors. His characters are big and broad, and actors, even good ones, could easy turn into their parts into enormous slices of ham. If the man can keep Al Pacino and Vin Diesel in line, he must be doing something right.
So back to that first question. What is more important: family or money? For Lumet’s film, the answer’s the latter. But how much do you want to bet the actors all took pay cuts to make the film and work with him?
“Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” opens in limited release October 26th (official site).