Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead opens with an unflatteringly naked Andy Hanson (Philip Seymour Hoffman) conjugally conjoined with his far more flatteringly naked wife, Gina (Marisa Tomei). They are in Rio, they are in bed, and they are, for the moment at least, in love. Hearts may not be entertaining June, and an amber moon is nowhere in evidence, but Brazil has nonetheless worked its magic on their unhappy lives and marriage. As Gina elegantly puts it, “I don’t feel like such a fuck-up when I’m here.” Andy assures her that they’ll come back again. “We have enough money,” he promises, “to stay here for the rest of our lives.”
It’s a terrible lie. Though Andy makes six figures as an accountant at a large New York real estate firm, an appreciable portion of the salary goes up his nose or into his arm. Factor in the stylish apartment he and Gina share, and it’s little wonder that he has taken to skimming off the company payroll.
As luck would have it, Andy’s younger brother, Hank (Ethan Hawke), has financial troubles of his own, albeit of a more mundane sort: child support owed to his bitter ex-wife (Amy Ryan), private school tuition for his teenage daughter, and what appears to be a considerable liquor bill at a bar called Mooney’s. So Andy, who’s always imagined himself the smart brother, makes a proposal to Hank, who’s always known he was the stupid one: “There’s a place we can knock off. Like the back of our hand. Easiest money we’ll ever make.” It’s a Mom-and-Pop jewelry store; the take should be large enough to solve all their money problems. And the reason it will be so easy is that it’s their Mom and Pop’s Mom-and-Pop jewelry store, and they’re intimately familiar with its routines and safeguards.
It’s easy to see this premise being played for comedy, but veteran director Sidney Lumet and rookie screenwriter Kelly Masterson have something quite different in mind. The movie’s title comes from the Irish toast, “May you be in Heaven half an hour before the Devil knows you’re dead.” Unfortunately, everyone in the film is running about 35 minutes late. The jewelry heist goes horribly wrong, as one might have predicted given the hapless Hank’s involvement. Bodies are left behind, as are clues that may or may not lead back to Hank and Andy.
From this precipitating tragedy, the film unspools both forward and back in time. The story is told, then rewound and told from another point of view, offering up not only the consequences of the reckless robbery, but its underlying causes as well. What begins as a crime story gradually unfolds into a film about family dysfunction. Andy’s trophy wife Gina, we discover, feels like such a “fuck-up” at least in part because she is carrying on an affair with his brother Hank. And while Andy is oblivious to the infidelity, his choice of both accomplice and crime seems motivated in part by ancient grievances against his brother and his father (Albert Finney). Andy is a man who seems almost to want things to go wrong, if only to confirm his pitiless vision of the world and his place in it.
Nor is he alone. The characters in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead are not merely wounded, they are devoted to their wounds. Gina’s affair is in part a result of her self-loathing, but it is also an excuse for her to loathe herself. Hank’s ex-wife sneers at him happily when he fails to bring by his child support payment, but later, when he actually delivers, she is furious: His uselessness is a pillar of her own self-esteem and, as such, worth far more to her than his measly 900 bucks.
But in the end, it all leads back to Andy: Andy of the unfaithful wife; Andy of the incompetent brother; Andy of the unloving father; Andy, who buys himself a few brief minutes of oblivion from an androgynous heroin dealer in a kimono and Louise Brooks bob. He is a man of writhing, octopedal resentments who has spent his life trying to control them, to fashion them into a kind of emotional armor--only to find that, once wrought, it has nothing left inside. Like Hank’s ex-wife, he can accept cruelty more easily than kindness. When, late in the film, his father apologizes to him for a lifetime of indifference, Andy is driven to rage not by the indifference but by the apology. How can his bitterness and pain be taken away when they are all he is?
It’s a terribly tricky role, one that must hint at the hurt and rage beneath a carefully controlled exterior, but Hoffman brings it off brilliantly. Apart from Kevin Spacey on a very good day, it’s hard to think of any contemporary actor with such a knack for understated intensity. (It makes one wonder what familial backstory might have accounted for the villainy of his Owen Davian in M:i:III.) The rest of the cast, too, is very strong--in particular Finney, whose role unfolds unexpectedly.
Lumet, now 83, directs the film with such restrained craft that it seems almost uncrafted. (The one exception is a peculiar grinding noise that accompanies each temporal shift forward or back, an awkward gimmick better suited to TV.) First-time screenwriter Masterson displays real talent, even if Lumet claims credit for a few significant alterations. (It was reportedly his idea, for instance, to make Andy and Hank brothers.) But it is Hoffman’s exceptional performance that powers the film toward its terrible, predestined conclusion. At a crucial juncture, a jewelry fence lectures Finney’s character that “The world is an evil place…. Some of us make money off that. And some of us are destroyed.” Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is a movie about the latter kind of people.
CHRISTOPHER ORR is a senior editor at The New Republic.