To inaugurate Double Vision, an occasional column where Juan and I talk about both halves of a thematic or stylistic double bill, we decided to pair up two films we hadn’t seen starring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. Seeing as how I had already seen most of his major performances, I decided to watch what felt like the most glaring omission: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, the 2007 drama that would prove to be director Sidney Lumet’s final film before succumbing to lymphoma four years after its release. The stench of death is all over this film, and not just in this particular metatextual context: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is a prime piece of domino-effect suspense where it’s clear that every major player will meet a fate nastier than the one they were trying to escape.
In retrospect, maybe picking the one Philip Seymour Hoffman movie where his character literally has a heroin problem was not the way to go with this honour-watch, but it basically proves that every great thing said about the man was true. The quivering intensity, the genial laugh, the ability to imbue even the biggest scumbag with warmth and complexity. And Hoffman’s Andy Hanson certainly is a scumbag; poor husband, flaky worker, insensitive brother, and most importantly as far as the film is concerned, a terrible son. The event that sets the film’s whole car-crash-in-slow-motion drama involves Andy coaxing his brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) into knocking over the family jewelry store. The robbery gets botched, the mother gets shot, and the slow, steady descent into Hell begins.
Sidney Lumet is known for his avoidance of unnecessary formal filigrees, preferring a clean, intuitive sense of direction that places his actors front and center. This allows for the emotional intensity between any two given characters to shine through the film’s pauses. It’s times like these, where two of the performers are feeding off each other, where the film shines. A special commendation goes to Ethan Hawke, who trembles, fidgets, and yells with the best of them here. Smartly, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is mostly composed of tête-à-têtesbetween great characters, most of whom are way in over their heads. In that way, this film reminded me ofFargo, only that there wasn’t a lawful-good anchor à la Marge Gunderson to ground the madness, leaving all involved hurtling towards their own predestined finish line.
A couple of gripes: though understandably conceived to break narrative flow, the transitions between segments might as well have been replaced with title cards that read “We Are Now Shifting Time/Perspective.” They could have been dropped entirely and the film wouldn’t have been poorer for it, and the same could be said about Leonard Cimino’s crooked jeweler and his proselytizing about the evil that men do for a few extra bucks. Despite this,Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is a ruthless little dramatic engine where problems warp like cancerous growths until the host is left with the undesirable choice of either dying consumed or severing the limb.
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Amazon.
Directed by Sidney Lumet; written by Kelly Masterson; starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Marisa Tomei, Albert Finney, and Rosemary Harris; 123 minutes.
Stay tuned for Juan’s take on The Savages with the back half of this Double Vision.