This Week In Movies: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

David Ashton

There is an oldChinese proverb that goes”Do not use a hatchet to remove a fly from your friend’s forehead.” What does that have to do with this film? Absolutely nothing.

However, thisold Irish sayingdoes: “May you have food and raiment, a soft pillow for your head; may you be 40 years in heaven, before the devil knows you’re dead.”

For those who are not Irish (I happen to be a quarter Irish on my mother’s mother’s side), that old saying is a warning toman that, unless God has taken you up to Heaven upon your death,Satan will take your life as payment for your horrible sins. I guess the Devil doesn’t take IOU’s. In Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, one of the great filmmakers of all time, Sidney Lumet,forges a passionate tale of a heist gone awry, the evil acts of man in its aftermath and the Devil who has come for atonement.

Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead begins with the heist ofa jewelry store in the suburbs of New York City. The mission operators are brothers Andy and Hank Hanson played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke. One more brother and they could have started an ambiguously gay popband, but since there are only two brothers and bothare in dire financial straits,theyare forced to rob a jewelry store instead.

What makes therobbery unique and interesting is that the store is owned by their parents. I will say it again: their parents. They don’t consider the robbery to be risky though. They know their parents have insurance,an old lady is working the morning shift and of course, there will be noreal weapons. Not to mention, they are former employees so they know the setup of the store. They figure it’s a perfectplan. But nothingever goes according to plan, does it?

The robbery is a complete disaster. Turns out Hank’s mother was working that morning. When Hank’s partner, Bobby, walks in to rob the place he ends up facing off against the female version of Clint Eastwood. She shoots him, he shoots her and they both end up six feet under. Andy and Hank are left in total shock. Not only must they console their father, played brilliantly by the great Albert Finney, for the death of the wife they are responsible for murdering, but they still don’t have the money to cover their debts. Very quickly their livesbegin to spin out of control.

Andy, who has been stealing from his company in order to suffice his Requiem ForA Dream-esque love for cocaine and heroin, spends the rest of his movie covering his tracks from the robbery while at the same time dodging the IRS. Hank also must cover his tracks while trying to pay his ex-wife child support and avoiding Bobby’s wife’s brother who wants nothing more than to wring Hank’sneck for allowing the murder of his sister’s husband. On top of that, Hank is having an affair with Andy’s wife who is played by the lovely Marisa Tomei.

Then there is the strained relationship between Andy and his father that has plagued Andy for years and scarred him in more ways than he knows. I know that is a lot of information to digest, but if that skinnyAsian guy can eat all those hot dogs, I think you can handle multiple sub-plots intricately woven together.

Despite the excellent acting and superb camera craft, this film,unfortunately,stumbles in more than a few places. One area that hurt the film is the narrative structure. Similar to Memento or Pulp Fiction, Lumetjumbles up all the scenes like a jigsaw puzzle. It’s not just any jigsaw puzzle, one of the really difficult two sided ones that turns into a picture of a person whose entire body is tattooed like a puzzle.

With the right storyline this structure can add an interesting dynamic, but in this filmit comes off as unnecessary and annoying. The chances of this structure working effectively is about as likely as a tornado sweeping through a junkyard and putting together a Toyota Prius.

The second aspect of the film that falls short is the relationship between Andy and his father. It becomes obvious this is the central, most important relationship, and yet the depth of their relationship is never fully explored. Andy and his fatherare on speaking terms, but they seem to have about as much love for each other as an adoptionagency has for Michael Jackson.There are hints that Andy was neglected, buttheir history is largely left a mystery.

Sometimes it is good for films to leave certain elements open for interpretation, but I think a screenplay that focused slightly more on this interesting relationship would have heightened the climax and added to the film’s intensity.

This film has agreat director,an outstandingcast and an interesting plot, but ultimately didn’t pull through in the clutch. It was missing that extra something. Unfortunately,for me that wasa big something.To emulate the late Julius Caesar, thumb down. Gorent Heat instead.