Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead starts off on the wrong foot. Or the right foot! I can’t decide! Ugh. It’s Philip Seymour Hoffman banging Marisa Tomei’s butt – which is a great butt. They say women in Hollywood are over after 40 but man, she’s got a better body than most women half her age. Shame she only shows up in this movie topless and/or crying!
Oh! So anyway, as you can imagine, this movie is the exact opposite of Enchanted. This is the real world in all its shitty glory … Ethan Hawke owes everyone in the world money and generally leads the worst life. Philip and Ethan Hawke are brothers who rob their parents’ jewelry shop because they’re desperate, awful and stupid. Ethan’s the wimpy one of the family so there’s a big emphasis on having balls and not being a faggot and wanting lots of money – Philip brags about pulling in “six figures” and knowing all the angles, and he loves the word “faggot.” He’s a big dumb drug-addicted gorilla. In fact, big dumb masculinity covers the whole movie, and money – the ultimate symbol of patriarchal success – is super-super-important.
Which, of course, is true! Paying the rent, child care support and field trip money for your stupid daughter to see The Lion King – it all requires dollars. I appreciate the film’s insistence on hammering home how we’re all slaves to the green paper but the trouble is none of the story is very interesting. This is a far cry from Sydney Lumet’s previous work – Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, Fail-Safe, which were all, at the very least, great. I see what he’s trying to do here, it’s just a shame it’s boring, drawn-out and melodramatic.
To help shake things up the narrative is fractured in a jumbled Tarantino kind of way, showing both brothers’ sides of the stories at different time periods (1 day before the robbery, 4 days before the robbery), as well as the side of their father, Albert Finney. It goes on like this the whole time, with an an annoying stylistic series of jump cuts and zooms and whirring sound effects to introduce each new segment. It feels like an amateurish screenwriting exercise, especially when the story is so thin you can see the twists coming from miles away. There are no surprises. You know Albert Finney is gonna have to fuck up his kids, and everything spirals out of control: drug dealers, blackmailers, the brothers turn on each other … Philip, true to form, goes crazy.
I mean, the movie is okay for some decent performances. This is very much an “acting” movie, so if you’re an Ethan Hawke or Philip Seymour Hoffman fan maybe you’ll dig it. But I dig both those guys and Marisa Tomei and Albert Finney. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead does go over-the-top but it never goes far enough to be enjoyable. This movie is a very serious movie even though the overacting and awful, escalating situations sometimes makes it feel like a joke – a boring joke with a set-up that goes far too long with a punchline that fails to satisfy. The sense of funereal dread and family strife suggests it’s a Greek or Shakespearean tragedy dolled up with modern sensibilities, and while there is plenty of betrayal, matricide and infanticide to go around it takes more than literary homage to rise this dull story above the “Coen Brothers or Tarantino movie without the fun or humor” mire it’s stuck in.