Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

Rating:

Easy Money Turns Hard

Main Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Marisa Tomei, Ethan Hawke

Director: Sidney Lumet

The lure of easy money. It’s one of those universal temptations that most of us manage to resist only because we know that there really is no such thing as a free lunch, and that somewhere down the line, that easy money is gonna come down hard. But what happens when the benefits start looking like they outweigh the risks? What if you need that easy money? Then you better hope you’re in heaven half an hour Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is all about easy money. Except we know in the first five minutes that easy is a relative term. Unfortunately we also know what Philip Seymour Hoffman’s bare backside and Marisa Tomei’s bare frontside look like in rather more detail than we might choose. Yes, the film starts with a bang, so to speak, with a fairly graphic sex scene between the two that isn’t for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach. It isn’t violent or anything, it’s just sex. Right there, on the big screen. In the first thirty seconds. Sometimes it’s good to have advance notice of such an opening scene and know that it does not necessarily represent the content of the rest of the film. Well, not entirely, at least.

The film is, actually, about a simple heist gone terribly wrong. Much like the characters in A Simple Plan Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke see their easy as pie plan crumble into a thousand complicated pieces.

Hoffman plays Andy, older brother to Hank (Hawke). Andy is married to Gina (Tomei) and works in real estate. Hank is sort of a screw up. They really are very different in most ways. The one way in which they are similar as we enter the story is that they need money. Hank needs it to pay his child support and Andy to pay to support a few habits. But why doesn’t matter – they need cash and they need it now. Andy hatches a scheme in which they commit an easy, quick robbery, one where no one gets hurt, there is virtually no risk and the two men get to split the take. Yep, sure thing.

When the simple robbery turns out to be not so simple we begin to see a lot of the machinations that turned this particular wheel. Andy is a whole lot different than he originally seems, and Hank is dumb as a door knob, just as he originally seems. As we dive into their characters, we learn of their backgrounds, their lives as children, their complicated relationships with each other and the rest of their family. This is as much a story of jealousy, betrayal, vengeance and selfishness as it is of a heist.

I mentioned A Simple Plan earlier, and the parallels between it and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead are definitely abundant. From the brothers working together, the wife having an intricate role in the family dynamic and the power of money to sway people’s sense of right and wrong, the two films share a lot of themes as well as plot points. Where they most significantly differ is in the intrinsic character of the individuals involved. A Simple Plan touches on goodness corrupted by cash, whereas Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead takes on the trickier proposition of giving us characters that are impure (at best) to begin with, long before the lure of easy money takes them down yet a darker path. As a result, it’s hard to sympathize with or like the characters in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. Certainly some are more sympathetic than others, but none exudes any basic level of, well, “goodness” that would make us want them to escape their escapade unscathed.

Despite having to fight against unsympathetic characters, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead has some terrific sequences thanks to good writing and great performances by Hoffman and Hawke. Hoffman is as solid as always, and seeing him play this complicated and conniving character is fascinating. By the end of the film we finally have an inkling as to his machinations and motivations, having been given bits and pieces throughout the film. He plays it all out without a hitch and has some fantastic scenes with both Tomei and Hawke.

Hawke is not an actor I usually like – especially in leading man/romantic roles. He just doesn’t do anything for me. But as a rather stupid perpetual loser he brings home the goods. He isn’t afraid to look bad, and he gives Hank a quality that in a better man would be child-like, but in Hank is simply dumb and ugly. Of all the characters in the movie, it is Hank who is most likely to stir some compassion – for all his weaknesses he doesn’t deserve the trouble that rolls over him like a steam train.

Tomei as Gina doesn’t have a lot to work with. Her character is stupid and often topless. The occasional scene in which she gets to play a role in the unfolding drama shows that she could have handled a far meatier part in the action. Albert Finney also makes an appearance as the father of Andy and Hank and turns in a respectable performance.

Overall, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead ends up being an average movie. The basic plot has been done before – and better, in the case of A Simple Plan. But the dialogue and main performances save a lot of the material and give it a depth that makes the film interesting overall and fascinating in places. There is a whole lot of violence, bad language and nudity – which is why the film is appropriately rated R. If you’re offended by nakedness, this is not a movie for you – Marisa Tomei’s nipples alone have more screen time than some of the minor characters. I don’t think I would see this one again in the theaters, but as a rental, it’s worth a look for the outstanding performances of Hoffman and Hawke and the depth of character given by the terrific writing.

 

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