Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Before the Devil Knows You�re Dead Before the Devil Knows You�re Dead
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, Marisa Tomei

4 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson

"Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" opens with one of the most disturbing scenes I've ever witnessed (and I've seen "Caligula"). Blotchy, bloated Phillip Seymour Hoffman, playing an emotionally bankrupt corporate accountant, is having sweaty monkey sex with Marisa "oh my" Tomei (who plays Gina, his love-starved wife) in a filmy bedroom in Rio. Tomei's obviously been to the gym more recently than Phil. It's like watching W.C. Fields ravage Ava Gardiner. It's very, very wrong, and it'll make you feel like you're going to need a shower with a high pressure hose and an exorcism in order to expunge the memory from your mind. The next time someone says there ought to be a more proportional split in screen nudity between men and women, remember this scene. Fortunately the film takes a quantum leap in quality and you're spared further views of Hoffman's pasty backside.

�Devil� is about money and the despair its pursuit can cause. Hoffman, his first-rate acting chops on display, plays larcenous, trapped Andy Hanson. Andy�s been judiciously dipping in his company�s till in order to maintain his Beemer lifestyle, placate Gina, and drug his troubles away. But now his cooked books are about to come to a boil. He needs some long green to replace what he�s swindled before the auditors figure out how much is missing. He brainstorms a plan to rob a jewelry store, commandeering Hank, his luckless, alimony delinquent brother (a smudgy, beaten down Ethan Hawke), to pull the job. There�s one catch � the store is owned by their parents.

Andy assures his brother that no one will get hurt � the jewels are insured and Doris, the store manager, won�t put up a fight to protect baubles she doesn�t own. Guilt ridden, cowardly and nervous, Hank can�t face the prospect of ripping off his parents. So he hires a pro, ruthless ruffian Bobby Lasorda (despicably on target bad boy Bryan F. O�Byrne), to do the deed. But Doris has taken the day off, and the Hanson�s mom, Nanette (charming character actress Rosemary Harris), is manning the cash register. Nanette�s more than willing to protect what�s hers, whipping out a gun as Lasorda scrambles for the door. Nanette plugs Lasorda and he returns fire, dropping Mrs. H. But mom�s not finished. Before passing out, Nanette fires a fatal last fusillade, putting an end to Lasorda�s criminal career. When Lasorda�s dead carcass crashes through the front door and hits the pavement, the brother�s plans for an infusion of quick cash die with him.

The brothers have to hope that Charles, their grief stricken father (the always interesting Albert Finney), can�t connect the dots before they can cover their tracks. Charles has to decide whether to pull the plug on Nanette, the family�s lynch pin and the only person he truly loves. With his wife gone but certainly not forgotten, Charles has to face his sons without Nanette�s motherly smoke screen. He�s had little to do with Andy, his successful son, who harbors a grudge against his father for a lifetime of neglect. And Charles treats his younger son as the hopeless failure he believes he is.

The brothers ignore the potentially disastrous outcome headed their way. Hank takes shelter in Gina�s arms, while Andy goes to his drug dealer�s swanky apartment to anesthetize himself:

Hank (to himself): I�m not the sum of my parts. All of my parts don�t add up to one. Whatever one means, I guess.

Dealer: Get a shrink or a wife.

Hank: I�ve got a wife.

Dealer: Then get a shrink.

The brothers fa�ade as dutiful mourning sons begins to crumble when Bobby Lasorda�s widow Chris (tough chick Alleska Palladino), and her thuggish Marx Brothers obsessed sibling Dex (lantern jawed Michael Shannon), track down Hank and deliver an
ultimatum -- give us $10,000 or we�ll go to the police. Andy gets an equally distressing message from his office -- the auditors want to discuss the serious discrepancies in his records. Unbeknownst to the brothers, William, an embittered rival jeweler (knarly Michael Cimino), has shown Charles proof of his sons� involvement in the robbery. William has spent years harboring his resentment for Charles, much in the same way Charles� sons deplore the way he�s treated them: �What some people will do for money�Well now you know the world is an evil place, Charlie,� William says. �Some of us make a living off of that�and others get destroyed.�

Cornered, Andy comes up another desperate, daring robbery. The plan will either rescue the two brothers, or put them on the fast track to the state pen.

�Devil� employs the �Pulp Fiction� method of storytelling, using flashbacks to great effect. The story and aftermath of the robbery is told and retold through Andy, Hank, and Charles� points of view, in sections titled �Andy: Four Days Before the Robbery,� or �Charles: One Week After the Robbery,� etc� Seemingly insignificant clues and events, such as the broken glass outside of Hank�s apartment, or the identity of Gina�s mysterious caller after her mother-in-law�s funeral, are revealed in enlightening flashbacks, giving the viewer the satisfaction that a tragic puzzle is slowly being pieced together and their questions are being answered. (This movie is the anti-�Lost!�)

�Devil� was directed by Sidney Lumet, who�s been in the biz for 50 years and has helmed cinematic classics such as �12 Angry Men� (the original, with Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb and Ed Begley, Sr.), �Serpico,� and �Dog Dew Afternoon,� (okay, �Dog Day Afternoon�). But Lumet is no old school moustache Pete. He�s gamely embraced today�s technology and shot �Devil� in Hi-Def.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman is a great character actor, but he�s not a leading man, and certainly not a romantic one. The way the script pans out, Hoffman doesn�t have to carry the full weight of a marquee attraction; the action gets divided almost evenly between Hoffman, Ethan Hawke and Albert Finney. Hoffman marshals his skills at crucial moments in the film. Initially his character is an unflappable, confident mastermind who�s got every move figured out. But as the mistakes mount, Hoffman�s Andy turns into the Dutch boy desperately trying to plug a dozen leaks in the dyke with ten fingers. At one point his body shakes with frustration as he attempts to control his anger to keep from braining his inept brother. I�ve seen that type of reaction, inspired it in others, and felt it myself. Hoffman�s character is all about self-control, and when his life begins to fall apart, the only thing he has left to control is his emotions. When knows he can�t control himself anymore, he�s doomed. His crying, drooling melt down behind the wheel with Tomei, in which his pent up anger and hurt over his father�s neglect spews from every pore, is masterful.

Ethan Hawke also gives an excellent performance as Andy�s sad sack, spineless younger brother. The only thing that doesn�t ring true is seeing Hoffman and Hawke play characters that are the opposite of what we�ve come to expect from them. Hoffman is the rock (at least for most of the film), the one with Antarctic ice running through his veins. Hawke is a sheepish, skittish screw up. Based on their resumes and physiques, if I had written the script their roles would have been reversed. But you won�t be disappointed watching these two talented actors challenge themselves by going against type.

On the other hand, Marisa Tomei is so miscast as Gina Hanson, I had to wonder if she�s as airheaded as the character she plays. (The extras show she clearly is not.) I�ve been giving Tomei a pass ever since �My Cousin Vinny,� in which she displayed the comedic timing of Lucille Ball and the wrecking ball lingo of Leo Gorcey. But that was eons ago. Tomei�s credible output since then has been zilch. I kept waiting for her neglected Gina to display a modicum of intelligence, grow, regress or collapse in the way the other characters did, but she�s sent packing before the film�s over, with the indication that only her location will change. Tomei basically plays a sex object. Great for me, maybe bad for you. She spends most of her screen time topless � wondering if her love life is going to get better. (Again, great for me, maybe bad for you.) We never really learn what�s going on in her empty head, a fault of the script, not Tomei, but c�mon, Marisa, you really need to tend to your career. If nothing else, I really hope you got a sizeable bonus for making Phillip Seymour Hoffman look like Ron Jeremy.

Albert Finney can add his portrayal of Charles to his long and impressive list of memorable characters. Finney, proud but beaten down (particularly after the death of his beloved spouse), makes a very believable tough-love dad. He�s got his physical ills � his bad vision requires him to take an eye test at the DMV the day his store is robbed and his wife is shot. Finney, rheumy-eyed and bent, harnesses his character�s old school stoic exterior as he tries to make sense of Nanette�s death and still give the impression he�s in control of his emotions (unlike his eldest son, he is). He�s poured all of his energy into his business. As a result he�s a dispassionate stranger to his first son, and a cruel sadist in the eyes of his second boy, whom he refers to as �a baby.� After Nanette�s funeral, he makes an awkward attempt to reconcile with Andy, who�s too embittered from years of neglect and abuse to forgive him �just like that.�

Charles: I�m sorry I wasn�t able to be the father you wanted. But I thought it would
help you be better than me.

Andy: I�m sorry for not being the son you wanted me to be.

Charles: Hank needed us more.

Andy: I never felt like I was part of the club. The beautiful birds of a feather. You sure I�m your son?

Charles� response demonstrates that despite finally breaking through and having a heart to heart discussion with Andy, he still feels he doesn�t have to justify his actions and won�t stand still for any criticism.

Finney�s transformation from grieving husband to vengeful sleuth gives the film�s credibility a boost at a time when Hoffman and Hawke�s characters debilitate into desperate, doomed dunderheads. Charles becomes the moral center in a film crammed with broken, dysfunctional characters, so much so, that even his cold-hearted solution to his son�s problems seems like a righteous, justifiable act.

Two other actors give dead-on performances. Amy Ryan, phenomenal as hard living Helene McReady in �Gone Baby Gone,� plays Hank�s fed up, tough-as-a-rusty-nail ex-wife, Martha. When Hank comes to her looking to borrow $10,000 to save his hide, Martha reminds him he couldn�t even come up with $110 for their daughter�s field trip, and says the next time he shows up it had better be to pay the back alimony he owes her. She�s harsh, but believable, and Ryan once again displays her ability to play a strong willed woman.

I�m not sure who plays Andy�s Asian-American drug dealer � he doesn�t appear to have a name or I flat out missed it (!), but he�s worth paying attention to in his three brief appearances. His gaunt, fey body language and shockingly red hair gives him the type of look David Bowie paraded during his �thin white duke� period, but the writers fortify the dealer�s his sickly visage by giving him Don Rickles� rapier wit.

Devilish Extras

The movie�s extras are plentiful and enticing, including the theatrical trailer, audio commentary by Sidney Lumet, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke, and the feature �Directed by Sidney Lumet: How the Devil Was Made.� Its obvious Lumet assembled an intelligent and talented cast who fed off of his meticulous style of film making. The cast rehearsed for two weeks before shooting, giving them the opportunity to create, learn and absorb every facet of their characters personalities. �I felt like the film was already made when we started shooting,� comments Hawke. In addition to praising Hi-Def film, Lumet offers an insight on how he could get the audience to focus on the actor�s performances: �I purposely shot on forgettable sets,� he says, �a shopping mall, Hawke�s bland apartment. The only places that are visual are the apartment in Rio and the drug dealer�s apartment�Which is what Andy craves.�

�Devil� isn�t for those of you with oedipal complexes, or anyone uncomfortable with matricide, drug use and especially anyone unprepared for the sight of Phillip Seymour Hoffman in the buff. But with top rate performances, dripping irony, and an ending that serve up generous portions of just deserts, you�ll have a devil of a time.



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