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Before the DevilBefore the Devil Knows You’re Dead
a review by Tom Condon, OP (St. Martin)

Legendary director Sidney Lumet is not as well know as some other great directors (Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola), but he directed some great movies, beginning in the 50’s with Twelve Angry Men, and continuing into the 70’s and 80’s, with Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and The Verdict.  These were exciting, engrossing urban movies, dealing with moral dilemmas, featuring great performances from legendary actors like Henry Fonda, Al Pacino, Peter Finch, and Paul Newman. It’s great to see that Lumet, at 83, has not lost his touch.  Working with another great cast, (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, and Marisa Tomei), and a fine screenplay by Kelly Masterson, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is as suspenseful and engrossing as they come.

Before the Devil Knows you are DeadThe film centers on the relationship between brothers Andy (Hoffman) and Hank (Hawke).  Andy is older and more successful in business, or so it seems at first, while Hank is “the baby of the family,” a failure in his work and marriage.  Andy continually puts Hank down and bullies him.  In financial difficulty himself, stemming from a drug addiction and unscrupulous business problems, Andy convinces Hank to take part in a “perfect crime:” the robbery of their family’s jewelry store, in which no one would get hurt.  As you can imagine, things go terribly wrong, and the lives of Andy and Hank begin to unravel.  The appearance of their father, Charles (Finney), only adds to the fraternal tension.  Andy resents the fact that Charles favored his younger brother.  Charles admits his favoritism, claiming that Hank needed him more than the more resourceful Andy.

The jealousies, divided loyalties, and bitterness among Charles, Hank, and Andy harken back to the world of Biblical fathers and brothers: Cain and Abel; Isaac, Jacob, and Esau: Jacob and his sons; even the parable of the Prodigal Son.  With so much tension among them, it is inevitable that tragedy will result.

The scenes between these three great actors are riveting.  Hawke has the showier role as the “ne’er do well” kid.  Hoffman has the pivotal role, as the one who sets the events in motion, and suffers the consequences.  One of the finest scenes in the film occurs when Andy’s wife, Gina (Tomei) walks out on him.  Rather than tear apart their tastefully decorated apartment, Andy releases his anger in a gradual, controlled manner, which is even more frightening. 

Before the Devil Knows you are DeadLumet shifts the perspective of the story from that of the three principal characters, with the botched robbery as the focus, moving backward and forward in time.  While this device has been overused in recent years, it works well here.  Each sequence, told from the viewpoint of Andy, Hank, or Charles, brings new information to the puzzle, as the viewer begins to put the pieces together.  Not a moment is wasted.

Be forewarned:  there are three or four violent scenes in the film.  In addition, the film includes scenes of sexuality, especially in an explicit opening scene between Andy and Gina.  It’s not a film for everyone.  But for those who do see it, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead will be rewarded with a family drama in which bitterness, jealousy, and a desire for revenge play in tragic ways.  It could have been the story of Isaac, Esau, and Jacob, without the happy ending.

Tom Condon, OP      

The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is L -- limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R -- restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

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