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Before the Devil Knows You're Dead– Lumet’s Gorgeous Gift

Thriller Thursdays: Two brothers who are perennially short of money plan a mini-heist, but make a mess of it, and then implode in the tensions of their filial and familial dynamics.

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead– Lumet’s Gorgeous Gift
  • Sunil Bhandari

Last Updated: 05.14 AM, Sep 21, 2022

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In our weekly column, Thriller Thursdays, we recommend specially-curated thrillers that’ll send a familiar chill down your spine.

At one point, before the devastating climax commences, Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) weeps inconsolably as he drives feeling unloved after a bruising talk with his father Charles (Albert Finney). Where years of being considered the enfant terrible, of being emotionally neglected, of feeling unlooked at and unloved, suddenly reach an inflexion point - and everything inside him comes pouring out like lava. And beside him, his wife Gina (Marisa Tomei) sits passively, in her own angst-ridden zone. And one knows things are about to take a turn for the worse.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is elegiac from its first frame, as Andy is in bed with Gina, and is pleased as a punch at the mutual orgasm. And isn’t an orgasm, finally, nothing but a small death? And that is where the film envelopes its tale of filial jealousy, marital strife, family dynamics, and financial woes. The crime, which results in events spinning irrevocably out of control, is the greedy moral decision of the truly desperate.

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Andy and Hank (Ethan Hawke) are brothers, perennially short of money, one because of high maintenance to his ex-wife and child, and the other because of drug addiction. At a crucial point, for both, things come to a head - a daughter who begins to think harshly of her father (a Lion King ticket, a visit to New York and a daughter’s reputation amongst friends, is at stake) and an impending IRS audit which would spell doom (as it would be revealed that dipping into the till is a norm). The solution that Andy comes up with is to hit a jewellery store deep in the suburbs in Westchester. The catch is that the jewellery shop belongs to their parents.

It would be criminal to reveal anything more of the story because things do go horribly awry, and right at the centre of the dysfunctional misdemeanour are the moral imperatives which make a person choose between self-preservation and family bonds. As the film closes on to its almost-Shakespearean climax, the entirety of the sorrow of a man’s past and present accumulates towards a shattering conclusion.

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The film seeks both intimacy and scrutiny of its characters and their motives. And the entirety of its technique is towards bringing clarity into what drives its ordinary likeable characters to end up doing what they do. The shots are framed to let the tension between characters emerge like sparks between plugs. A wide-angle lens is used in close-ups to have faces fill the screen and the narrative is deliberately non-linear to see the same incident from differing points of view. And the information is released in sachets of intrigue, supplemented with revelatory action, till the whole is revealed in all its calamitous clarity.

The thriller morphs into a transition of festering wounds, a family drama which culminates in catastrophic decisions, of a father seeing his family spinning in all directions when all he can conceive of relationships is in linear patterns. Half-baked resolutions make for poor familial harmony. The result of the misdemeanours is finally a putrid riot of desperation, murder, and a mafia-like showdown of mayhem.

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And then there is Andy, the man deeply and completely in love with Gina, after ten years of marriage, who sees his relationship self-destruct at the very moment when he is most in need of his love's unquestioning love and companionship. Gina is both coquettish and self-obsessed, as she greedily sucks the marrow of the brothers’ love, leaving both bloodless and herself spiritually anaemic.

Survival in desperation has its own logic slipping irretrievably through a sieve - the harm one engenders to oneself, tragically bleeds everyone who is close. Invariably, closures are steeped in nothing less than cataclysm.

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This is Sidney Lumet’s swan song and a fitting tribute to his genius. A career which reached its acme very early with 12 Angry Men and had classics like Serpico and Network, ends with an absolute cracker of a film. He elicits electrifying performances from Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, and in particular Philip Seymour Hoffman, as the film relentlessly captures their effeteness, their progressive slip into moral turpitude and then the mayhem, which completely wipes out all that is tender and beautiful. He makes us care for the characters, such that the arc of their self-destruction, which is ordained from the very beginning, still emerges as a heartbreaking reality.

This is cinema at its very best.

Trivia:

  • Sidney Lumet considered the scene between Marisa Tomei and Philip Seymour Hoffman in the car when Hoffman breaks down after his conversation with his father, as one of the most extraordinary pieces of acting he had ever seen.
  • Sidney Lumet spoke about the opening sex scene between Marisa Tomei and Philip Seymour Hoffman, saying that he rarely used sex as a dramatic device. But this scene was critical because the viewer had to straightaway understand that this love, this passion, is what drives Philip. And the hilarious thing was that he didn't think Philip had ever thought of himself in the nude onscreen, fucking gloriously. It was just not something that came his way. So when they started shooting, Marisa hopped up on the bed, got on her hands and knees, slapped her buttocks and said, "Come on Philly, let's go!" Sidney Lumet said that he could have kissed Marisa, because after that if Philip had any inhibitions, they were gone.
  • Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead was featured in at least 21 critics' top ten lists of 2007, and was selected as one of 2007's top ten influential American films, by the American Film Institute.

Watch Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead here.

(Views expressed in this piece are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of OTTplay)

(Written by Sunil Bhandari, a published poet and host of the podcast ‘Uncut Poetry’)

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