Directed by Sidney Lumet. US. 2007.

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Sidney Lumet’s 45th film, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, is a psychological crime thriller that contains some of the best work by Philip Seymour Hoffman and superior performances by Albert Finney, Ethan Hawke, and Rosemary Harris. Unlike Lumet’s earlier works of towering humanism, however, his latest film, even if expertly done, is an exercise in thoughtless nihilism that does little if anything to illuminate the human condition. The film takes its title from an old Irish toast, “May you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you’re dead” and shows mankind at its most unenlightened – scheming, petty, greedy, and without conscience.  

Andy Hanson (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a drug-addicted payroll manager for a New York real estate company who is stealing from his company to pay for his dependency on heroin. He confesses to his opulently dressed pusher, “My life doesn’t add up. I’m not the sum of my parts. All my parts don’t add up to one me.” If Andy is shown enjoying sex in Rio with his wife Gina (Marisa Tomei), it is perhaps the only thing in his life that provides pleasure. In financial trouble, he persuades his brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) to join him in a plan to rob their parent’s (Albert Finney and Rosemary Harris) jewelry store. Like many today who have no acquaintance with values other than the accumulation of material possessions, their financial position in life defines who they are.  

Hank, three months behind on support payments, is reluctant at first to commit but is persuaded by older brother telling him that no one would be hurt and that the insurance would cover his parent’s losses. “It’s a victimless crime, if your [expletive] little conscience bothers you,” he tells Andy assigning conscience to the same scrap heap as a bad character trait that must be overcome. Unwilling and probably unable to commit the crime himself, Hank enlists a petty criminal, his friend Bobby (Brian F. O’Byrne), to commit the robbery. Whatever could go wrong, however, does go wrong, and big brother Andy has to try and pick up the pieces.  

While much of the film is played out in flashback, we do not learn much about the brothers and their motivations other than the stock explanation that they come from a dysfunctional family with resentment in the bucketful against mom and dad and bitterness against brother Hank for dallying with his wife. The film is perfectly carried out but never rises above the limitation of its characters and shows us no opening to a better place. Its clinical dissection of a family headed for disaster can be riveting but ultimately, leaves us in despair. We know that “The world is an evil place. Some people make money from it, some people are destroyed by it.” But do we need to have filmmakers rub our noses in it once again? 


Howard Schumann
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