Before The Devil Knows You're Dead

Before The Devil Knows You're Dead


Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

Heist movies are the bread and butter of the thriller genre, but it’s the ways they don’t work that add the filling to the sandwich. Anyone can stick up a bank, but only a veteran director, such as Sidney Lumet, and a writer of Kelly Masterson’s quality can make disaster taste like caviar.

On the face of it, what is more mundane than robbing a “mom and pop” jewellery store in a discreet shopping mall in the ‘burbs on a lazy Saturday morning before anyone has opened up? The sales pitch goes: easy peasy, bro, insurance picks up the tab, no one gets hurt. The instigators – amateur crooks with critical cash flow probs – walk away with 50 grand a piece. It’s a win-win situ.

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If only…

The robbery goes fatally wrong, after which it’s damage limitation in a blaze of panic. Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke) are brothers. Andy, the eldest, has always played by the rules, with one exception - he has an expensive drug habit. Hank is the charmer, the loser, the mommy’s boy, with an ex-wife, crippling alimony and a daughter he adores. He’s not making enough scratch to service his commitments, which includes keeping a mistress happy enough to stop her yapping in the marital bedroom.

The story is shuffled unconventionally, so that The Day Of The Robbery is followed by 3 Days Before The Robbery and then 4 Days Before The Robbery, culminating in 1 Week After The Robbery. By this method, the plot evolves backwards before scenes are repeated from separate points of view.

The way the plot manipulates every worst case scenario is fiendishly clever, but what elevates Before The Devil above the ranks of intelligent indy thrillers are the performances. Seldom has an ensemble cast meshed so effectively.

Hoffman’s mastery of everything he surveys is complete. Andy’s marriage may be locked into Self Destruct and his well paid job about to implode in his face, but control is the essence of survival as denial is his weapon of defense. Hoffman balances on the brink of breakdown with the skill of a tightrope walker, as Hank sinks ever deeper into the quicksand of remorse. Hawke captures Hank’s weakness, while hinting at a fragile appeal, with frayed energy. It’s like watching butter melt on the lips of a child murderer. As the proprietor of the jewelry store, Albert Finney conveys repressed rage with the force of a lifetime’s experience. His may be small steps into the bigger picture, but every one leaves its mark.

Reviewed on: 01 Feb 2008
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Damage limitation after a jewellery heist goes wrong.
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Director: Sidney Lumet

Writer: Kelly Masterson

Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, Marisa Tomei, Rosemary Harris, Aleksa Palladino, Michael Shannon, Amy Ryan, Brian F O'Byrne, Blaine Horton, Arija Bareikis

Year: 2007

Runtime: 123 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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