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Arts & Culture

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

The film takes its title from the saying "may you be in heaven a half hour before the devil knows you're dead." Andy, a real estate executive, is someone who's desperately trying to beat that clock. The film opens with him having sex with his wife Gina (Marisa Tomei) at a resort hotel. The scene is far from a glamorous Hollywood sex scene. Andy is shown in particularly unflattering light not just because he's pasty white and overweight but because he watches himself in the mirror during intercourse. Gina seems too young and too pretty for him, and consequently we suspect he has to work hard to keep her. As they lie in bed, he wonders what it would take to make this happy moment last forever.

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (Image Entertainment)

That's when the movie cuts to a botched jewelry robbery. Then the film cuts back in time again to reveal Andy proposing a perfect victimless crime to his younger brother Hank (Ethan Hawke), a crime that will solve both their financial problems. But of course, nothing goes right and Andy's downward spiral eventually sucks in his mother (Rosemary Harris) and his harsh father (Albert Finney).

The centerpiece of this film is Hoffman's performance. It's riveting, repulsive and yet sadly human. He's a manipulator of people and thinks nothing of using his brother. Then when things go wrong, he shows no concern for his sibling, but rather tells him "how are we going to fix this so your sh*t doesn't fall on my shoes." When Andy's world comes crashing down around him and he turns to sudden violence, Hoffman makes it a brutally shocking moment as a lifetime of pent up hate and aggression bursts forth. Yet Hoffman lets us see into this character. He shows how he could never compete with the puppy dog charms of his younger brother, and how he always felt left out of the family "club." But whatever vulnerability he shows in that confrontation with his father, he undercuts with his inability to forgive. He ends by asking his father: "You sure I'm you're son?" This is a very calculated provocation because of the particular kind of man his father is and because of the suggestion that maybe the mother was unfaithfui. Hoffman's Andy is a man imploding, and once events are set in motion, there is no turning back.

Hoffman tries to anchor the film in credibility. Unfortunately, Kelly Masterson's script strains credibility at almost every turn. Viewers have to make a major suspension of disbelief to accept that Hank would so easily agree to Andy's insane scheme. Then we have to accept Andy's stereotypically shrill ex-wife, cops that behave in a highly unbelievable manner, and bosses that seem slow to act on their employee's dereliction of duties. Hoffman and Finney try to make this material work, and at times they often succeed through their sheer force of will. They, and to a lesser degree Hawke, make us believe in the dynamics of this dysfunctional family relationship. And if you buy into how messed up they are, then the dark, nihilistic ending fits.

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke (Image Entertainment)

Lumet and Masterson structure the film through a series of flashbacks much like the indie film Go. The structure allows us to see each character at their most desperate moment and then back track to see how they got there. It's a fairly effective approach, although the fact that each scene plays out more than once extends the length of the film a bit unnecessarily. It's like taking one step forward and two steps back.

Lumet imbues Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (rated R for a scene of strong graphic sexuality, nudity, violence, drug use and language) with a relentless sense of these characters unable to escape their fates. It's almost like a Greek tragedy, in which these characters are doomed by their fatal flaws. In a way Before the devil Knows You're Dead is like watching a car crash -- you want to look away, but something compels you to try and take in all the gory details.

Companion viewing: Dog Day Afternoon, Fargo, Go