The grim lesson of Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is delivered by an elderly jewelry dealer sitting in a tiny, dark room somewhere in the diamond district of Manhattan. "The world is an evil place," he declares, with the authority of someone who has seen and done plenty of bad things. "Some people make money from it, and some people are destroyed by it."
Devil, directed by Sidney Lumet from a script by Kelly Masterson, is a chronicle of destruction - physical, spiritual and moral. That most of the victims and most of the perpetrators are members of a single family gives the story some of the suffocating fatalism of an ancient tragedy. But the workings of fate figure far less in the narrative than bad choices and unlucky accidents. The evil in this world arises not out of any grand metaphysical principle, but rather from petty, permanent features of the human character: greed, envy, stupidity, vanity. There are no demons on display, just small, sad, ordinary people. The filmmakers rigorously tally the results of their sins, minor lapses made monstrous by the failure of love and the corruption of ambition. Simple, familiar desires - for money, sex, status, respect - end in murder.
Murder, indeed, is where the story begins, with sex providing a teasing, tawdry prologue. A robbery at a suburban jewelry store shatters the quiet of a Saturday morning with gunfire, breaking glass and the squealing tires of a getaway car. We will witness this crime a few more times, from different points of view, as Lumet backs up and goes over it again, drawing out its every consequence and implication.
The robbery was planned by Andy Hanson (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who enlisted his younger brother, Hank (Ethan Hawke), to carry it out. The dead body on the sidewalk belongs to Bobby Lasorda (Brian O'Byrne), a small-time hood Hank recruited for the dirty work. The saleswoman bleeding on the floor is Nanette Hanson (Rosemary Harris), Andy and Hank's mother and the owner, with their father, Charles (Albert Finney), of the store her sons decided to hold up.
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
DIRECTED BY: SIDNEY LUMET
STARRING: PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN (ANDY HANSON), ETHAN HAWKE (HANK), MARISA TOMEI (GINA), ALBERT FINNEY (CHARLES), ROSEMARY HARRIS (NANETTE)
RUNNING TIME: 117 MINUTES
TAIWAN RELEASE: TODAY
What kind of people would do such a thing? Lumet, who has been directing movies for 50 of his 83 years, has the wisdom to leave the answer mainly to his actors. Andy and Hank are not explained, dissected or excused. They speak their lines and carry out their actions, and, by the time the film is over, we know them inside and out.
We know that Andy's marriage to Gina (Marisa Tomei) has hit a snag, that Gina is sleeping with Hank, and that Hank's shrunken life includes a furious ex-wife (Amy Ryan), a young daughter and a collection of nervous tics. He is weak and indecisive - "a baby" to both Andy and Charles - and probably the last person you would trust to carry out a robbery. If you gave him a quarter to feed the meter, you'd end up with a parking ticket and a stream of pathetic apologies.
But Andy is sure he has everything figured out. A real estate accountant with a high-end drug habit and pathetic fantasies about moving to Brazil, he tends to overestimate his intelligence and underestimate his desperation. He is a cold, shallow, angry man, one of the least likable guys Hoffman, a specialist in acutely observed male unpleasantness, has ever played. Andy bullies Hank mercilessly, lies to his employers and seems to experience minimal remorse after his perfect crime goes horribly awry. And yet, while never for a moment soliciting our empathy, Hoffman makes us care about this man, the scale of whose ethical failures gives him a kind of negative grandeur. Besides, his self-hatred makes our disapproval seem a bit redundant.