A year ago, film director Robert Altman died at the age of 81, shortly after completing Prairie Home Companion. Ingmar Bergman, 89, and Michelangelo Antonioni, 94, both died this year on July 30. All three directors worked long after what is considered retirement age, making movies or working on other creative endeavors up until the end. Three years ago, another seasoned director, Sidney Lumet (Network, Serpico), won a Lifetime Achievement Oscar. Lumet is also not resting on past accomplishments but still going strong at age 83. His latest film, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, is a stark and gloomy look at the people in one unhealthy family.
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is the story of two brothers, one a greedy, drug-addicted scoundrel and the other hard-pressed for cash, pathetic and easily manipulated. The older brother, Andy, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, has plenty of money, but always wants more. His younger brother Hank, played by Ethan Hawke, cannot even afford to pay his child support. Andy concocts a plan to address their financial concerns and persuades his reluctant brother to participate. Andy is the kind of older brother no one needs. His plan is to knock off what he thinks is an easy target: a small jewelry shop with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of jewelry, attended only by a "dumb old lady." Since the jewelry is insured, Andy concludes that it will be a "victimless" crime. And he expects Hank to do the dirty and dangerous work. Hank is timid and unsure of himself, but is in debt and has lost credibility with his daughter, who calls him a "loser." So he solicits help from a more experienced criminal, Bobby (Brian F. O'Byrne). Nothing goes as planned, and both Hank and Andy are faced with the task of trying to conceal their involvement in the crime.
The acting in this film is strong and convincing, which is to be expected from this first-rate cast with at least nine Academy Award nominations among them. The parasitic Andy is irritating as he sacrifices others. "It's too late to think. This is our future," he tells Hank, who is wisely having second thoughts about robbing the store. Hawke's performance as the stressed-out and immature "baby" brother is especially fascinating. In one beautiful and simple, but very effective scene, Hank, for only a few seconds, considers suicide as a means of escaping his dilemma. Gina (Marisa Tomei) is Andy's trophy wife, but she considers Hank more of a catch than his brother. In another fine performance, she moves lazily across the screen like a woman in a daze, completely oblivious to her own nakedness. Albert Finney presents a powerful and very emotional performance as Charles, the father. Their bad behavior has a degrading impact on him, and in his grief and despair, he begins behaving like Andy. Aleksa Palladino is perfect in a minor role as Chris, Bobby's hard-edged girlfriend. The women in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead are like fine pieces of furniture, cosmetic touches that exist only for the comfort and pleasure of others. They are not taken seriously as human beings, but ignored, used and then dismissed.
However powerful this film is, it does have a few weaknesses. Lumet tells his tale in a series of scenes out of chronological sequence. It doesn't make the story more difficult to follow, but the disorder seems like a pointless device. Creative ways of telling a story are usually welcome, but this film would have been more gripping if presented in a conventional manner.
In the credits at the end of the film, recognition is given to attorneys who provided legal counsel. The filmmakers should have considered seeking advice from a medical source also. Unfortunately, this is a common problem with contemporary films. Films such as Million Dollar Baby, Walk on Water and now, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead are well-made films weakened by medically implausible scenes.
This film is certainly worth seeing, especially for it's outstanding acting performances, but your impression of Before the Devil Knows You're Dead will be stronger if you leave the theater about 10 minutes before it's over.