“Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead”

In my family, it is an annual tradition to make a toast at Thanksgiving dinner. While many toasts are simple wishes of good health, the strangest of the bunch is a fairly morbid Irish blessing: “May you have food and raiment, a soft pillow for your head; may you be 40 years in heaven, before the devil knows you’re dead.” It’s a strange concept, really. And yet, as director Sidney Lumet tries to convince us in his most recent drama “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” we all have our demons. Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a fairly successful businessman who can’t seem to get anything substantial out of life. Because his world seems empty, Andy seeks comfort in drugs to give him confidence and hope. Andy’s brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) isn’t any better off. Unable to pay his alimony, Hank is a loser in the eyes of his ex-wife and child. While Andy needs money to fuel his addiction, Hank needs some quick cash to gain some respect in the eyes of those he loves. Together, the brothers decide to perform a seemingly “victimless crime”; they plan on robbing their own parents’ jewelry store. But, inevitably, all hell breaks loose during the robbery and the lives of the brothers and their parents spin out of control. The most obvious strength of “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” is the acting. A cast containing five Oscar nominees is certainly impressive, and every actor completely delivers. If you are hesitant to see “Before the Devil,” the acting alone makes it worth it. No one can deny the sheer talent shared between Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke and the legendary Sidney Lumet; the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have praised all three of them with Oscar nominations. Hoffman and Hawke provide perfect contrast between one another. Hoffman has an arrogant and self-confident exterior, yet as the lies become more complex, so does Hoffman’s acting. In contrast, Hawke plays the cowardly younger brother so well that I’m going to have trouble seeing him play any other role. Simply amazing acting doesn’t occur often, and “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” is one of the few movies where it does. The next best aspect of the movie is its story presentation. Sidney Lumet decided to tell the story in many different parts: before, during and after the robbery from the perspective of each of the main characters. As you watch the movie, the timeline and perspective jump around quite a bit. Often, risky editing like this can become confusing and disorganized. However, this could not be farther from the truth in this film. The story presentation flows with just the right amount of speed; it’s not choppy or messy. Lumet took a risk, and the entire film benefited from it. Although the acting and storytelling were really terrific, a few low points stuck out. First, I was annoyed with the orchestra throughout the film. Although it can be a useful tool sometimes, the entire movie seems to be guided by obvious, over-the-top music. Music in movies should be in the back of your mind; you should recognize that it’s there, but you shouldn’t have to directly acknowledge its presence The one other problem I had was the plot. During the movie, everything seemed logical and believable. But, after I left the theater, I couldn’t help but notice many gaping plot holes. So many actions seemed implausible and brought the entire validity of the story into question. The one thing that I can’t stand in movies is poor plot structure. If Lumet had spent more time ironing out the kinks, this surely would have been one of the best films of 2007. What you expect from “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” is what you get; terrific acting and great story presentation. However, not-too-subtle music and some frustrating plot holes bring my grade down. This is one that you might want to catch on DVD, but it’s just a little too imperfect to be worth the trip through the snow to the Loop. Grade: 4+