THE DEVIL MADE HIM DIRECT IT
by Kevin Bowen
published December 5,
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
now playing in movie theaters
Watching Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is a little like playing a high-stakes game of cards.
We know things the characters don’t know. They know things we don’t know. They know things that the other characters don’t know. No one knows
everything that’s going on. Watching the film isn’t so much ingesting images as laying cards on the table. So you’ll be excused if you wear your
Ray-Bans into the theater.
New York family heist caper, directed by octogenarian Sidney Lumet, shows both modern and classic impulses. With its bumbling loser crooks, its
twisting narrative and dazzling charade of editing and storytelling, this may be the first ode to the peak of 1990s indie filmmaking.
But in Lumet’s hands it also becomes a compendium of New York filmmaking, paying homage to older cinematic visions of the city. It’s like
something out of the forties and fifties – a New York of petty criminals, family jewelry stores, and street-level bustle. Often, filmmakers are
seduced by the Big Apple’s biggest apples. Lumet is still in love with the smaller secrets.
At the core of the story are two brothers, Andy and Hank Hanson (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke), each one a bit of a nincompoop. Andy
has worked his way up to a payroll executive to grasp a little bit of success. Daniel, on the other hand, struggles for every dollar to pay rent
and child support. Both men have money issues that are about to eat them alive.
To get out of the situation, Andy thinks up an airtight plan. They (or at least his brother) will knock off a jewelry store, and, for a certain
reason I won’t reveal, the two men will never be suspected. Naturally, the airtight plan goes the way of most cinematic airtight plans. Things
break down. Someone ends up dead. The fallout opens old and new family wounds. Soon, the brothers are just trying to keep their lives.
Others have filmed New York, but few so openly and lovingly as Lumet, with his sense for symmetry and space on the broadest streets and the
tightest shops. The film practically leaks fine performances, with Hawke’s hapless loser, Marisa Tomei’s mix of quiet suffering and longing, and
the way Albert Finney’s eyes seem like they’re about to boil out of the lids. Hoffman takes the cake with his unscrupulous and secretive
moneyhandler, who isn’t quite as far ahead of everyone else as he thinks.
While it’s strong in style, place, and character, the film somewhat lacks in substance. While it presents some basic moral dilemmas and has a
hammer-headed approach, it doesn’t have much to say. It’s not really a film about anything. Still, the sharpness of the performances, the skilled
of the direction, and the daring of the script make it more than pleasant to watch.