Thursday 15 April 2021

Movie Review: Before The Devil Knows You're Dead (2007)

A crime-gone-wrong drama, Before The Devil Knows You're Dead enjoys a startling premise and sparkling cast, but the follow-through is only middling.

The movie jumps back and forth in time. Chronologically, brothers Andy and Hank Hanson (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke) both have serious financial problems. The younger and more irresponsible Hank cannot keep up with alimony payments to his ex-wife Martha (Amy Ryan). Andy enjoys a managerial job but has an expensive drug habit and is pilfering money from his employer, with a looming audit about to expose his theft. Andy is married to Gina (Marisa Tomei), but behind his back she is having an affair with Hank.

Andy talks Hank into robbing the suburban jewellery store of their parents Charles and Nanette (Albert Finney and Rosemary Harris). With the insurance covering the losses and no one getting hurt, it's supposed to be a victimless crime to make some quick money. But absolutely nothing will go according to plan, and both Andy and Hank will find themselves sinking deeper into trouble of their own making.

Carrying a Coen Brothers vibe but lacking the icy streaks of dark comedy, Before The Devil Knows You're Dead traces a series of brotherly missteps leading to disaster. The well-labelled time jumps in Kelly Masterson's script are unnecessary but nevertheless boost the engagement value, while Sidney Lumet directs with an eye for the little details. The film's opening is strong, before the second act deflates and the climax unravels.

At its core this is a story of two losers stuck in a hole but never grasping the imperative to stop digging. Andy's drug use is sabotaging his career and marriage as he allows the resentment at being his father's second favourite son consume him. Hank has coasted through life on now-fading boyish looks while taking little responsibility for anything. He is now broke, short-changing his ex-wife and pursuing an affair with his sister-in-law.

Masterson and Lumet enjoy piling on the agony for the two dimwits, but the film suffers in the absence of any sympathetic, or even just smart, characters. Events spiral out of control and the brothers descend from twilight into absolute darkness, but since they author their own predicaments, their fate registers somewhere between well-deserved and who cares.

Their dad Charles is the closest thing to an innocent victim who deserves better, but most of his scenes are wasted on a truncated bang-your-head-against-the-wall subplot involving police indifference. Another frustratingly careless script dead-end involves Hank's misadventures with a rental car.

Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney and an underused but frequently disrobed Marisa Tomei paper over most of the weaknesses with dedicated performances. Hoffman stands out as a brooding, coiled, and near-the-edge presence. As the plot lurches towards untidy conclusions, Michael Shannon appears late and livens up the post-robbery narrative in a couple of pivotal scenes as another lowlife dabbling in crimes he should avoid.

Before The Devil Knows You're Dead dances with misdeeds, turning up the temperature but lacking emotional warmth.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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