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Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

dir: Sidney Lumet
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The title might be a bit confusing to people who haven’t heard the whole phrase before. It refers to having the temporary good fortune to get to heaven a half hour before the devil, who’s keen to get His due, knows you’re dead. In other words, getting a few minutes grace before the hammer, or, in this case, the pitchfork, comes down on you.

As you wandered into the cinema, wondering what the title was referring to, you’d sit there, munching on your highly unhealthy popcorn, chipping into your choc-top, which drips shards of chocolate onto your already dirty clothing that take a while to melt into the fabric real good. After enduring the trailers and idiotic commercials for mobile phones, 4WD trips to South Australia and switching your mobile phone off before the film starts, you’d be greeted with a sight that will push the question regarding the title out of your empty little head.

The first entire minute of this film concerns itself solely with Philip Seymour Hoffman drilling Marisa Tomei in the doggie style position and watching himself in a mirror as he does it. You can like or admire Hoffman’s acting abilities and performances, but I’ll bet your firstborn that you never really ever wanted to see him pretending to fuck anyone, let alone watch that chubby arse wobbling back and forth.

Actually, now that I think about it, the film should have been called Philip Seymour Hoffman Drilling Marisa Tomei Doggie Style Whilst Watching Himself in the Mirror.

Look, I’m not denying that the scene is important. It’s very important. It establishes very early and very clearly that Hoffman’s character in this flick is something of a narcissistic prick. And Marisa Tomei looks sensational in that and probably lots of other positions. Good luck to her. It’s just that, now, Hoffman’s arse haunts my nightmares.

Yeah, okay, I’ll get on with it. Two doofus brothers, Andy (Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke) need money. They’re not crims by trade, but end up planning and carrying out a robbery on a jewellery store owned by their own parents. It’s the perfect crime in the planning stage, where no-one’s meant to get hurt and everyone walks away happy.

In the implementation phase, of course, it turns into what is generally known in the business as a clusterfuck.

All this happens in the first ten minutes of the film. The plot then spends the rest of the flick jumping backwards and forwards in time from the robbery examining everything that happened to the awful aftermath. See, the plot of the flick isn’t that new or novel in any way. But the story is where the fascination lies.

This is where the title’s point kicks in, in that after the robbery goes wrong, Hank and Andy desperately scramble around in order to delay the inevitable. But these guys aren’t professional crims, and the likelihood of their getting away with anything is nil. They are both fuck-ups of extraordinary magnitude, but not for lack of intelligence. Mostly, it comes from the deep character flaws both seem privy to.

Hank is the kind of guy who has the ex-wife constantly screaming at him for child support, and whose daughter calls him a loser because he can’t give her $150 so she can see the Lion King musical with her friends. His solution? Getting shit-faced, fall-down drunk. Everything he does seems to occur in a sweaty, nervous cloud of desperation, even when it’s basic stuff like returning a hire car or answering a phone call.

His ex-wife’s (Amy Ryan, almost playing the same character she played in Gone Baby Gone), entire dialogue seems to consist of little more than “Fuck you, loser, pay me”, which made me think that maybe she was channelling Henry Hill from Goodfellas.

Andy is the far more complicated and far nastier fuck-up. Although he gives the outward appearance of success, he is a seething mass of problems. From what I could gather, he is a cocaine addict, a heroin addict, impotent and an embezzler from the firm he works for. Despite what the opening scene showed, he is generally uninterested in his wife and only dreams of finding someway to escape from his life and to fly to Brazil.

In his weekly visits to a kimono wearing girlish drug dealer (Blaine Horton), Andy pays for a hit and has the curious little androgyne shoot him up. As he lays there in his underwear, Andy, whilst “on the nod”, speaks of the virtues of real estate accounting, and how everything balances out, everything makes sense because everything adds up. But, he tells the dealer who couldn’t care less, he himself doesn’t add up. He laments that the parts of his personality and the persona he tries to project to the world don’t connect together.

Later on, after a funeral, Andy gets into a strange argument with his father (Albert Finney), where he expresses resentment over the manner in which he felt excluded from the tightly knit unit formed by Hank, their sister and the parents. He expresses it in such a way that makes you think that maybe taking such an awful course of action as carrying out a robbery at your parent’s store isn’t as out of character for a man like Andy as we previously thought.

It takes certain personalities to make the unthinkable thinkable. The virtue of this flick is that the story has desperate civilians trying to operate as criminals but completely lacking the skills to make it work or the foresight to see what the likely repercussions of their actions would be, which necessitates that the level of tragedy has to reach Shakespearean proportions before the devil gets what’s owed.

I’m sure the acting was probably great, but it’s hard for me to notice when such hams are porking up the screen. I thought all the acting was as good as something like this deserves, probably too good for the genre material, and what I really appreciated on the part of the director was the abundance of long takes and extended, tense scenes which really allows these hams the time they need to deliver the bacon that’s promised.

In an argument with someone about this film over the weekend, her complaint was that the flick was a clichéd mess she’s seen a thousand times before. I really wonder now as I wondered then what movies she’s talking about. While there’s nothing new about the plot (petty crime, family conflict, revenge, trying to cover up one’s crimes and making everything worse), it’s hardly a film I can say I’ve seen plenty of times before. And I’ve watched a lot of films, crime-related and otherwise.

My main problem with it wasn’t the chronologically-fractured narrative, but that I didn’t really give a damn about a single character in the film. That’s not a fatal flaw, but it does make it somewhat more of an academic exercise rather than an emotional rollercoaster. I’m watching to see how much worse circumstances can get for the characters, rather than sitting there with my heart in my mouth wondering whether the characters I care about will survive, or whether they will damn themselves further.

It’s an interesting flick. Definitely interesting. Not great. But interesting.

7 times I wonder whether Marisa Tomei wonders whether she got paid just for that opening scene of drilling out of 10, because it’s the most worthwhile thing she supplies here.

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“You’re not going to shoot me, are you?”
“It would make things easier. A lot easier.” – Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

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