Fearful Symmetry

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Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead

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Grim brothers - Before The Devil Knows You're Dead

Grim brothers - Before The Devil Knows You're Dead

Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead is from that sub-genre of crime, the heist movie; in this case the robbery of a ‘mom and pop’ jewelry store. Ironically mom and pop are going to be robbed by their own sons. Harking back to noir traditions, it all goes terrible wrong and the film plays out the consequences of the failed robbery for each of the various parties involved, interspersed with flashbacks showing how the robbery came about from the different perspectives of each of the characters.

Andy, the oldest son, is played with dead weight solidity by the always brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman. He’s mired in the middle of middle-aged depression, with a failing marriage, a stultifying job and drug addiction. The only time he was recently happy was on a holiday in Rio and he desperately wants to get back there with is wife – the ever gorgeous Marisa Tomei -permanently. So he lures his brother Hank into a plan to rob their parent’s jewelry business. They’re insured, nobody gets hurt right? Hank, played with a jittery edgy by Ethan Hawke, doesn’t need much persuading. He’s several months in the hole with child payments to his ex-wife (plus the kid needs and extra hundred bucks to go an a class trip to see The Lion King). And he wants to get away with his lover too. Who just happens to be Andy’s wife…

Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead (which comes from an Irish saying, ‘May you be in heaven a full half hour before the devil knows you’re dead’) is directed by the veteran Sidney Lumet, a full fifty years on from 12 Angry Men, and whilst not perfect it’s obvious we are in skilled hands here. There’s hardly ever a shot with out painterly interest although at times the drama shades into melodrama (especially with the brothers’ father played by Albert Finney), and some of the secondary characters are pretty much one-note (Hank’s wife in particular) this is solid all the way through to its bitter end.

Although there’s a decent plot with a couple of interesting twists – and the flashbacks keep you on your toes – this is mainly a character piece, especially the relationship between the two brothers. So physically and emotionally different, they barely seem to belong to the same family (which the film hints at at one point). It’s obvious that for years Andy has shouldered a heavyweight resentment at being the first son who did not achieve his father’s dreams. This is brought out in his relationship with Hank; who, although his parent’s ‘baby boy’, is even more of a screw-up as Andy. The brilliant acting shows off the effects of years of this twisted dynamic, not only between the two of them, but also between them and their father.

And of course things become even more twisted after the failed robbery. The two brothers are no career criminals, they loath themselves for the dreadful consequences of their actions. Plus they still need the money, driving themselves into even more desperate circumstances.

Although long, this is a tragedy of almost Shakespearean depths, and, like Andy with Hank, once hooked in it will not let you go.

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Written by Fearful Symmetry

July 16, 2009 at 9:26 am

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