This is a thriller-crime-drama that revolves around a failed jewelry store heist planned by two brothers. But from the opening sequence, where the overweight older brother, Andy, is having desultory sex from behind with his fetching wife, Gina, the audience is primed for a film about more than a robbery.
Before the Devilis, in fact, a family album of failure, exacerbated by a self-centered blindness to others that drives the brothers, their wives and the father to destructiveness and loss. But Lumet knows how to draw characters—his12 Angry Menremains engrossing fifty years later—and the interaction between the characters in Before the Devilis compelling, circling around the robbery in a fashion that changes the viewers perception of the event and its ramifications.
The heist is not just a botched job, it is an explosion that sets off waves engulfing the whole family. The plan, hatched by Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is for Hank (Ethan Hawke) to rob their parents’ jewelry store in a mall in the suburbs of New York. It is to be on a Saturday morning, when an elderly female part-time employee opens up the store, and the week’s earnings have accumulated. Andy hedges his bets by enlisting gullible, and desperate Hank because he doesn’t want to do the dirty work himself, plus if anything goes wrong, Hank, not he, will take the fall. Hank is desperate for money because he can’t afford support payments to his ex-wife along with private school tuition for their daughter. Andy needs a big infusion of cash to leave his company job and move to Rio, where he wants to start over in hopes of jump-starting his marriage. Andy’s smooth manipulation of Hank gives the feeling that this may represent a lifelong habit of a much smarter older brother taking advantage of a trusting but weak and foolish younger sibling.
What goes wrong is that their mother opens the shop instead of the usual part-time employee, and the small-time crook Hank hired to rob the store fatally shoots her—as she kills him with her own powerful handgun, the impact sending him crashing through the plate glass door. From there, the movie escalates into pressurized layers of doomed scenarios: Hank is blackmailed by the dead crook’s wife, her brother threatening to kill him; Andy’s wife (Marisa Tomei) leaves him, and he prepares to leave the country for Argentina (a move he’d like to make, that he had mentioned in bed to his wife, who replies cryptically that she once saw in a movie that Argentina has no extradition agreement with the U.S.) because, as the accountant for his company, he has been siphoning off large amounts of money and the IRS is conducting a surprise audit.
But, first, befitting a Greek tragedy, he has to help Hank out of the mess he is in—not unselfishly, he remarks that he doesn’t want Hank’s shit to fall on his shoes—so he asks him to set up a meeting with the dead crook’s blackmailing wife and brother at their place. Before they go there, they stop by the lavish Manhattan high-rise condo where Andy, unbeknown to his brother, is accustomed to going for a heroin fix. Andy kills the dealer along with a comatose client, then cleans out the open wall safe of wads of cash and drugs. Hank is flabbergasted, and it is clear that Andy has been pushed over the edge by the auditing scandal about to be revealed, his wife’s leaving him, his mother’s murder, his father’s rejection, and Hank’s gross ineptitude, for which he has presumably had to take responsibility since childhood.
When the brothers then arrive at the blackmailers’ apartment, Andy coolly shoots the man in the head and, not completely surprisingly at this point, turns the gun on Hank and is about to pull the trigger, when the woman takes a gun from a pizza box and fires on Andy, critically wounding him. Hank escapes with the stolen money and drugs.
Intercut with these turn of events, the father (Albert Finney) goes to an old business acquaintance in the city’s diamond district to try and find out if the dealer (and fence) has heard anything that might be connected to the attempted robbery of his jewelry store. What ensues is the film’s defining dialogue, when the old dealer hands the father Andy’s business card—Andy had come to the dealer, knowing that he would fence the jewelry they would be stealing from their parents’ store—and says,
“You always hated my guts, you called me a crook, but you didn’t know shit about how the world works, or what some people will do for money. I guess, now you know, Charlie. The world is an evil place, Charlie. Some of us make money off of that, and others get destroyed.”
The father has been consumed with finding the getaway driver who escaped from the bungled jewelry heist attempt, and is stunned to find his son involved. His act at the end of the film defines his failure as a father and startles the viewer with its calculated cold-bloodedness. It gives meaning to Andy’s earlier emotional outburst in the car, while driving away from the father’s house after being slapped in the face by him: “All my life I’ve been afraid of becoming like him. All my life!” But he has. And the scene where he turns the gun toward his brother and starts to fire, is paralleled in the father’s final act.
Marisa Tomei’s character, Gina, is a concoction of vulnerability and immaturity, mixed with sexual knowingness and a certain calculated tool-kit of personalities that give her options for staying married while carrying on an affair with Andy’s brother, and of being financially ‘kept’, because she wouldn’t be capable of taking care of herself. She casts lures in the water to find why Andy stays with her, confessing (in bed) that she isn’t good in bed (which we know is a lie, because we have seen her with Hank). She also admits she can’t keep the house in order, but the rooms in every scene are immaculate. What she really wants is for Andy to assure her that she has worth, but as he shrugs off her plea in the final bedroom scene, it becomes clear that he finds her empty-headed and unable to help. She is dispirited by Andy’s refusal to confide in her during the multiple crises that are visibly shaking him. She is the female counterpart to Hank, and their weak-minded clutchings stand in apposition to the brothers’ strong and capable parents, as well as contribute to the movie’s theme of people making calculated use of others.
The failure of the brothers in Before the Devil, is not an indictment of the two men but an observation of human frailties. It is to Lumet’s credit that though it is impossible to ‘like’ the brothers, we still empathize with their dilemmas, and even recognize to some extent our own weaknesses as being part of the human condition, watching uneasily as Andy and Hank make bad decisions and screw up their lives, and we wonder how we would do things differently, hopefully, while being masterfully entertained.
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. American. 2007. 117 min. Sidney Lumet, director. Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman (Andy), Ethan Hawke (Hank), Albert Finney (the father), and Marisa Tomei (Gina).