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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (review)

Accidental Crime

Oh, but these are awful people, honestly. They’re so deliciously amoral that it’s coolly insane fun to watch them implode, it’s true, but you’d have to run far and fast were you to find yourself actually encountering them lest their slimy stink rub off on you. Which makes it okay to smirk at them — we know we’re better. Really, it’s not too often that you can be so confident of that, so revel in your superiority.
The thing is, these are authentic people: not cartoon villains or action-movie bad guys or any of those unpleasant but unreal “real people” who inhabit so many of our movies. They’re just authentically fucked up, and pretty proud of it, it seems. “You’re a prick, Andy,” his brother Hank tells him. “I always was,” Andy replies, with a shrug, like “Tell me something I don’t know, and might actually care about.” And then the brothers get on with their business, which is planning to rob the strip-mall jewelry store run by their own parents. Oh, and Hank also gets on with screwing Andy’s wife, Gina, behind Andy’s back.

If there was a dog somewhere waiting to be kicked, these’d be the guys to do it. They wouldn’t necessarily enjoy it, maybe, but hey, it’s there to be kicked, and someone’s gotta do it.

That’s the kind of sly, nasty casualness that takes Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead into a realm of mopey genius. Director Sidney Lumet (Find Me Guilty) — working from a clever first script by playwright turned screenwriter Kelly Masterson — brings a gritty, indolent cool reminiscent of his films of the 1970s (Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico) but without the manic density. Crime isn’t urgent here: it’s slothful, dogged, a chore of the lazy and the dumb who do it not for the thrill but out of a sheer lack of imagination. You need some dough? *sigh* Guess you’ll have to steal it from somewhere. Add it to the daily to-do list.

Plainly naturalistic and not bothering with fancy flourishes, Devil doesn’t overexplain itself as it gives us the heist from multiple angles, as if to show how many different ways a couple of idiots can screw up a job. Andy’s perspective lets us see the always riveting Philip Seymour Hoffman (Mission: Impossible III, Capote) anew: here’s a man, his Andy, a deep-in-debt broker, who’s both smart and stupid at the same time, and a man for whom, it seems, getting out of bed in the morning must be a trial. Hank’s perspective gives us a sneaky, shifty Ethan Hawke (Fast Food Nation, Lord of War) twitching his way through a role that’s as meaty for an actor as it is meager for the character: Hank is a shell of a person sleepwalking through life, and Hawke is pretty darn funny with it.

Maybe it’s all meant to be more tragic than I’m seeing it. Devil shifts focus again, and now we have the perspective of Hank and Andy’s father, Charles (Albert Finney: The Bourne Ultimatum, Big Fish), from which we learn how royally his sons have, unbeknowst to him, messed things up. The film does meander toward deeper tragedy than you might expect, except that the tragedy is all in the unthinking carelessness of Hank and Andy for anything other than their own immediate self-interest, and it’s questionable if they’re even as concerned as all that with their own selfishness. Selfishness may be too much work for them, too.

As crime thrillers go, this one is so laid back that it all seems to happen by accident: guns sort of appear out of nowhere, for instance, melt in and out of drawers and pockets just in time for someone to pull a trigger he shouldn’t have pulled just as someone who shouldn’t be standing in the path of a bullet shouldn’t be there. For all its seeming lethargy, though, Devil is madly suspenseful — because you never can tell what kind of accident is going to happen next.

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MPAA: rated R for a scene of strong graphic sexuality, nudity, violence, drug use and language

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb
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  • Scott P.

    Warning– Spoiler alert!!!

    If you haven’t seen this movie but plan to, please don’t read my comments.

    Boy, was I disappointed in this movie. To me, there were just so many implausible leaps that I couldn’t get over. For example, the robber who gets shot & killed has a fake ID. Ok, I can understand why the cops aren’t knocking down Hank’s door 5 minutes later. But you’re telling me that these suburban cops are too incompetent &/or too lazy to find out his real identity & then go talk to his wife? We’re talking about a killer here, not a purse-snatcher! And the wife surely knows deep-down that Hank led her husband to his grave but later when she has a chance to gun him down more or less in self-defense, she tells Hank to get the hell out with a duffel bag full of money???

    Oh, and don’t get me started on the fact that his company surely had figured out that Andy, the Head of the Payroll Dept, had embezzled thousands. But he simply waltzes right into his office & cleans out the rest of the cashbox right in the middle of a workday. Cops might be lazy, uncaring bastards who dont give the time of day to a man whose wife was just murdered but THOSE BAD-ASS ACCOUNTANTS would have corralled him as soon as he strolled into the building.

    Regarding the constant flashbacks, I found it to be completely tedious. We’ve already seen this in Pulp Fiction & Memento & it worked perfectly in those films. Here, it seemed like the director was a film student trying to be artsy & stretch a 20 minute short into a two-hour movie.

    Finally, why would Academy Award Winning Actress Marisa Tomei accept this role in which her sole purpose in the film seems to be to show her (pardon my French) tits? Don’t get me wrong, Marisa has wonderful tits, but that’s all I got from her character. As she walked out on Andy, I wanted so badly for her to say “Oh, by the way, I happened to drive by the jewelry store last Saturday two minutes after your brother totally fucked it all up. So I grabbed that bag of diamonds & now I’m going to Brazil without you because you’re just a pathetic fucking loser. Maybe someday I’ll forget enough to be able to forgive myself for ever having anything to do with you or your asshole brother.”

    And maybe someday I’ll be lucky enough to forget all about this lousy movie.

  • MBI

    “But you’re telling me that these suburban cops are too incompetent &/or too lazy to find out his real identity & then go talk to his wife?”

    Who’s to say she would tell them anything? She chose the path she wanted — extortion. Besides her testimony, what else is there connecting Ethan Hawke to the robbery?

    “Don’t get me wrong, Marisa has wonderful tits, but that’s all I got from her character. ”

    You seriously don’t see why an actress would want to take this role? Seriously? It’s a far meatier role than her Oscar-nominated turn in “In the Bedroom,” that’s for sure.

  • MaryAnn

    She chose the path she wanted — extortion

    Right. She realized she was far more likely to get some concrete satisfaction this way than in pursuing a legal course. Her husband is dead no matter what — the cops and courts weren’t going to get her any money out of it.

  • Scott P

    Fine, the wife initially chose extortion instead of going to the cops. I can accept that.

    But let’s fast-forward to the bloody scene in her apartment. Hofmann double-crosses them & shoots her brother & eventually she shoots Hoffman. Then she yells at Hawke to run & get the hell out of there…with a big duffel bag full of money.

    If she cared about the money, why not shoot Hawke (it’s self-defense anyway) & then stash the money in a closet & call the cops??? Hawke is the guy who led her husband to his death so why not get some vengeance on him too?!

  • MBI

    She wasn’t shooting a killer in retribution, she was neutralizing an armed and dangerous man. It’s that simple.

    I don’t think you really understood the movie, or tried very hard either. Like MaryAnn says, everything happens in this movie by accident. No one has their shit together. The wife didn’t have a plan — the extortion was probably the brother’s idea, and that wasn’t thought out that well either. I suspect she didn’t want the money THAT much, certainly not in the aftermath of a double homicide.

    Back to the actual movie, my biggest problem with it is the Albert Finney character. I just don’t think he was developed enough to explain why he did what he did. I don’t think he really fits into the aesthetic — if, as MaryAnn says, the point of this movie is everyone is too pathetic to be tragic (and boy are they ever), Finney is the only person who actually accomplishes what he sets out to do. I don’t really get it.

  • Scott P

    “I don’t think you really understood the movie, or tried very hard either.”

    I understood it enough to say “This movie sucks!” out loud.

    Spend your 8 bucks on something else, people.

  • MBI

    “I understood it enough to say “This movie sucks!” out loud.”

    No, I don’t think you did.

  • sakiv

    does anyone know why he kills the fat guy lying on the bed in the dealer’s apartment? is it just because he is going crazy/will do anything state?

  • MaryAnn

    The guy on the bed is a witness who must be eliminated.

  • John S.

    The fat guy was doped out and down for the count.
    I think Andy saw the guy as a exaggerated reflection of himself , so given the timing and state Andy was in, He shot this guy and it worsen a spree of criminal action he allready commited to.

  • Sakiv

    Yeah john, I think he was a reflection of himself

  • John S.

    I just cant quite place what the title ment , like who was the devil in reference to was it Hoffman’s character or Finnley

  • MaryAnn

    The title comes from the Irish aphorism, “May you be in Heaven for half an hour before the Devil even knows you’re dead.” You know, like you’re such a good person that the Devil doesn’t miss you right away. Unlike these people here. The Devil has his eye on them while they’re still alive.

  • Cam

    To tell you the truth, I don’t think this movie is about these men receiving justice or not.
    What the movie is about are the characters emotions and how they react to them rational or irrational.

    Please read what I have to say.

    In a movie about simply about how everybody is simply human, all everyone tries to do is to make their lives better. Now understand me here. This is not how anyone may see it on the surface, but this is the truth. To Give, Remember, is to Receive. To Love, is to be Loved. Yet I also feel that to say that one doesn’t care about another thoughts or feelings about them is lying.

    You know why?

    Your Emotions will always be a part of who you are. You look at one thing and see another. Everyone is Different because Emotions are What We Are. Morals, Values, Strategies and Plans truly do follow second. They are what we learn to teach and show a guideline to what we should do. We Are Our Emotions. Hell, we were born with them. They may change in particular times of life, as our paradigms tell us, but we will ALWAYS have them.

    This movie is about Emotions and how we react to them. It’s not about how society reacts to them as much as it does their “cells” in their “prison”. It’s not about right or wrong. All they do is react to their experiences as what people will always and forever do. This isn’t a review of just a movie, but of people and what we do.

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