Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
Dir. Sidney Lumet
Premiered at Deauville September 7, 2007
In the 2000s, a typical year in the US would see around 150 theatrical releases in a year, with rarely more than five films debuting in a busy weekend. For some reason, 2007 was different; well over 200 films got American releases, wide or limited, with some weekends seeing as many as seven, eight, or nine new films. So part of the reason 2007 produced so many good movies is that it produced so many more movies, period. This is also why this explosion of creative energy made little impact on box office records– the lesser-known original films were crowding each other out. And it may also explain why Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, a heavily advertised, critically-acclaimed A-list film from a name director, has managed to become obscure. It doesn’t deserve that fate.
One sunny morning, the proprietress of a suburban jewelry store (Rosemary Harris) is confronted by an armed, masked robber, shooting him dead, but not before getting shot herself. The erstwhile getaway driver speeds off in shock.
Three days earlier, deadbeat divorcee Hank Hanson (Ethan Hawke), behind on his child support payments, desperately asks his successful realtor brother Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to help him out. Andy, who claims to need money himself despite appearances, has a better idea: to rob their parents, who own a jewelry store in the suburbs. Afraid to confront them himself, Hank acquires the services of lowlife thief Bobby (Bryan F. O’Byrne), who comes armed. The robbery is botched when mother Nannette turns out to be minding the store instead of father Charles (Albert Finney). By the end of the day, one person is dead and another is dying.
Desperate for help, Hank calls Andy in his office. Here, the story rewinds once more, and this movie becomes amazing, as we discover why Andy needs the money: he’s been embezzling funds from his business in order to support his heroin habit, and is keen to escape the country before the feds come after him. Also, his wife Gina (Marisa Tomei) is having an affair– with Hank.
With each new development, the film reverses course, as if saying “wait, I need to go back and tell you this first,” creating an an increasingly twisted but expertly constructed tableau that’s equal parts Rashomon and Fargo. Characters and situations pile up like car wrecks on a foggy road, a sense amplified by the film’s unusual white filter, washing the film out like an interrogation room, a drug trip, the reflection off a diamond, or the light one allegedly sees at death. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is one of the best films of 2007, and it deserves to be remembered as such. At the very least, it puts the familial dysfunction of Dan in Real Life to shame.
Signs This Was Made in 2007
Among the many character actors who make appearances is Blaine Horton, whose sole other credit as an actor is as Sacha, the fey redhead in Jenna Maroney’s entourage on an episode of 30 Rock which aired just a few weeks after Devil’s premiere.
Gina points out that there’s no extradition treaty between Brazil and the United States. She’s right, but she says she heard it in a movie once, and in the film she’s likely thinking of, David Mamet’s The Spanish Prisoner, the country in question is Venezuela.
Marisa Tomei is also naked in quite a lot of this movie, which is nice. Costanzas take note.
However, Philip Seymour Hoffman playing an intractable junkie makes this film a bit harsher in hindsight.
How Did It Do?
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead undersold in the US. Though relatively successful in Western Europe (especially Italy), its $25 million gross couldn’t recover the marketing costs against its $18 million budget.
However, it was a critical smash, earning an 88% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. NPR’s David Edelstein predicted Oscar Glory for the film, but it received nothing so much as a nomination. Ten years on, the film is shamefully absent from streaming services or even iTunes or Netflix DVD, and it took a full week to hunt down at the Los Angeles Public Library. This is not okay.
Critics proclaimed the film a return to form for Sidney Lumet. Unfortunately, it would be his last; he passed away in 2011 at the age of 86.
Next Time: The Brothers Solomon