“The world is an evil place. Some people make money from it, and some people are destroyed by it.” Capping a weekend stand of venal cops, missing children, and murderous ballet was yet another feel-good film, Sidney Lumet’s sparse, harrowing amorality tale, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. (The title is taken from an Irish proverb, “May you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you’re dead.”) All in all, I quite enjoyed the film, although it may not be everyone’s vial of acid. A dark and ugly story of corruption, desperation, and family betrayal, its pleasures reside in being told simply and told well. As in Lumet’s classic Dog Day Afternoon, Before the Devil dwells on the consequences of a badly bungled crime perpetrated by two increasingly desperate men. But here, the crime is of a more personal nature than the bank robbery of Dog Day, and the planners and victims have more in common than just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Here, the road to Hell is a well-traveled one, and nobody sends you careening down it faster than your immediate kin.
After briefly visiting the sex life of Manhattan real estate broker Andy Hanson (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and his trophy wife Gina (Marisa Tomei) — While it may at first seem tawdry and gratuitous, this is Hank’s “half hour in Heaven” moment, setting up everything to follow — Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead begins with a really bad day at an average, suburban strip mall in Westchester. To wit, a matronly woman (Rosemary Harris, best known as Aunt May) opening a jewelry store is suddenly beset upon by a masked villain brandishing a gun, who barks orders at her and begins filling a sack with the store’s wares. Alas, Spiderman is not forthcoming this time, and the attempted robbery ends in tragedy. After a getaway car flees from the scene, we then flash back to the days before the botched theft, and discover that it was originally the simple plan of Andy, who needs money in the worst way to cover up his flagrant embezzling from a forthcoming company audit, to knock off “a mom-and-pop operation” and fence the lucre.
Moreover, Andy has enticed his obvious screw-up of a little brother, Hank (Ethan Hawke), into the scheme. (Hank has money problems of his own: he’s three months behind on child support, as his ex-wife (Amy Ryan, late of Gone Baby Gone) keeps reminding him, and even his young daughter, in between her middle-school performances of King Lear(?), now realizes he’s pretty much a loser.) Complicating the perfect crime even further, of course, Hank is having an affair with Gina and has fallen in love with her; Hank, not the brightest bulb on the tree by anyone’s measure, decides to outsource the actual deed to a tough-guy bartender friend of his; Andy is a barely functioning heroin and cocaine addict who’s close to veering off the rails in any event; and, most importantly, the jewelry store in question is owned and run by Hank and Andy’s parents — in fact, it was meant to be their father (Albert Finney), who Andy might well have considered acceptable losses, behind the counter on game day. And now, as Hank puts it, “it just came apart“…so what are these two criminal masterminds going to do?
There are no heroes in Before the Devil, just a lot of deeply flawed people each caught in a tightening vise of circumstance. Even notwithstanding his money problems, Andy is drowning in self-loathing. His wife Gina is an obvious manipulator (note her purring, Lady Macbeth moment when she catches wise to the crime.) Hank is a spineless wheedler, who can’t stop trying to skate by on his boyish looks even when it’s obvious they’ve long since failed him as a negotiating tactic. Even Charles, the pater familias, has issues: If he can’t be directly faulted for the sins of his children here, it’s clear he’s responsible for some of the family dynamic at work, and his turning into R.E.M.’s “The Apologist” after the crime doesn’t help matters.
Still, if there are no good guys here, there are a number of very good performances. The cast is excellent across the board, and the sheer quality of the ensemble work here helps this otherwise bitter tonic go down smooth. If you like your family sagas or crime stories served up ice-cold, give Before the Devil a run for its money. As Lumet’s film reminds us, when it comes to the best-laid plans of mice and men, the devil is in the details, and the evils that we all may be quite capable of lurk only a few bad days away.