I’m going to cut right to the point — any movie that starts with Marisa Tomei taking it doggy-style is more than okay in my book. I have no clue what switch director Sidney Lumet flicked to get her to sacrifice in such a way for her craft (probably the same one Marc Forster flicked to get Halle Berry sacrificing herself in Monster’s Ball), but what I do know is I want more of it! Tomei, like a fine wine, is getting better with age — so much better.
Now that that is out of the way, I can once again focus my energies on the movie at hand: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. On the surface it appears to be one of those convoluted dramas I have come to love by the Coen Brothers (No Country For Old Men, Fargo). This movie is dark and captures the bleaker side of seemingly good people just like those movies, but it quickly separates itself by delving further into the emotional impact its characters go through — not only from their recent actions but from deep-rooted familial resentments.
It all starts off simple enough, Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a well-respected payroll executive, is in desperate need of cash – he’s been skimming the books, has a nasty drug habit and wants to restart life with his wife Gina (Marisa Tomei) in Brazil. He’s figured out the route to happiness can be found by committing what he sees as an easy robbery which, from his estimates, will net an easy $600,000. But, just as the case with all those with “brilliant minds”, they need a lackey to do the actual work. Enter Hank (Ethan Hawke), Andy’s brother. He’s in desperate need of cash too – the paycheck he earns from an uninspiring 9 to 5 job is barely enough to pay his bills let alone his hefty child support payments. After a few moments of arm twisting Hank is onboard and the ball that will forever change their lives begins rolling.
But because Hank is a complete pussy, Andy’s brilliant heist goes up in smoke when put into action. It’s here where the film splits from a basic crime story and follows the path of a captivating drama in which we watch Andy’s riveting descent into destruction and his father Charles’ (Albert Finney) rise to doing the unspeakable. I won’t divulge the gory details; I’ll just say it’s nearly impossible to not get pulled into the plight of the characters.
There are several reasons we get sucked into the maelstrom that is Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. First is the smart writing by Kelly Masterson. It is hard-nosed and very explicit — a most impressive debut screenplay. And while I’m not usually a fan of films that rely heavily on flashbacks to tell a story, Lumet manages it well by employing interesting cutbacks and ultimately abandoning them when their usefulness has worn off. But putting it all together is the outstanding work by the cast. Hoffman has once again proven he deserves all the praise he’s been receiving lately (see Charlie Wilson’s War). He handles the gamut of emotions better than most of his peers — with most of them on display in this performance. Finney really drives the movie home though with a stellar showing of his own. The fact that I found it painful to watch what he was forced to go through as the movie progressed speaks volumes (my wife claims I am incapable of feelings).
Sadly, due to the limited release Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead received in the States, many won’t get a chance to see one of the better movies of 2007 in the theaters. Come to think of it, that may actually be a blessing though — did I mention Marisa Tomei gets naked a bunch of times and looks absolutely fantastic doing it? It’s rather difficult to enjoy those moments with complete strangers sitting on either side of you . . .