Not heaven yet
Family is going down in director Sidney Lumet’s tragedy
The botched robbery of a suburban jewelry store is the pivotal event in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, but it’s not really a crime movie in the usual sense of the term. And while its fascinatingly twisted narrative charts the destruction of two generations in the jeweler’s family—two sons, their parents and one of their wives—it is not a conventional family drama either.
It is, however, a kind of American tragedy, but one necessarily—and brilliantly—played out as a grim, noirish farce. Everything about the robbery goes absurdly wrong—that’s the farcical part. But the absurdities have an expanding multitude of devastating consequences, unintended and otherwise—and that’s the part that approaches tragedy, or at least tragicomedy, of the most scathing sort.
The distinguished octogenarian director Sidney Lumet gets three versions of high-voltage derangement out of his leading players—Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke as the sons, and Albert Finney as their gruffly imperial father, who also owns the store targeted in their robbery scheme. No less crucially, Kelly Masterson’s screenplay broadens and deepens the emotional impact by fragmenting the story’s time frame and recycling key moments of the action through separate points of view.
There are no conventionally sympathetic characters in all this, but the complex perspectives that develop in the process generate a wary kind of empathy. In the resulting mixture of intimacy and skepticism, each of the key characters—including the woman (Marisa Tomei) who is wife to one of the brothers and mistress to the other—emerges in part as a figure of pathetic desperation, disappointed strivers playing out confused personal scenarios of emotional and socio-economic frustration.
Lumet and his actors make a riveting and persuasive case for Masterson’s vision of modern family relations befouled by dangerous mixtures of emotional aspiration, economic ambition and psycho-sexual desire, all in painfully familiar and often lethal combinations. Partly a study in contemporary money-madness, the film is also a sardonic take on a culture so immersed in paternalistic ambition and childish sentiment that Oedipal conflicts can only play out as inversions of the classic form—now, in our world, the son kills the mother, the father kills the son, while the siblings indulge in semi-incestuous adultery.
Big brother Andy (Hoffman), a self-confounding bundle of arrogance and self-pity, is Exhibit A in all this, but Before the Devil… is very much an ensemble effort. Little brother Hank (Hawke), an imploding blend of panic-stricken gentleness and sublimated deviousness, contributes significantly to their mutual demise. Finney’s ogre of a father, seemingly only a bystander at first, looms over the wreckage as both ghastly instigator and avenging demon. And Gina (Tomei), feckless and irresistible enabler of transgressions with both brothers, brings passive-aggressive complicities of her own to the family’s devastation.