‘Devil’ aims for tragedy on an impossible scale
As a character drama, the film is interesting.
By CHRISTY LEMIRE
AP MOVIE CRITIC
“Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” begins with an unflinching depiction of a tubby Philip Seymour Hoffman having vigorous vacation sex with the shapely Marisa Tomei.
(As George Costanza might exclaim, “Marisa Tomei!”)
It’s an image that’s clearly meant to jolt us, but it’s not nearly the most stunning or potentially implausible moment you’ll see over the next two hours.
Sidney Lumet, working from the first script by playwright Kelly Masterson, harkens to his own classic “Dog Day Afternoon” with this story of a heist fueled by desperation, in which one bad decision leads to another with devastating results. But the veteran filmmaker also seems to be aiming for family dysfunction and tragedy on a Shakespearean scale, which proves elusive. Even for a group of innately selfish, screwed-up people such as these, the sabotage and double-crosses pile up to an extraordinary level.
Hoffman and Ethan Hawke play brothers Andy and Hank, who plan to rob a jewelry store in a strip mall in suburban Westchester County, N.Y. Actually, big brother Andy plans the crime and coerces Hank into taking part, and from the very start we see the sibling dynamic that will be a crucial factor throughout the film. All these years later, Andy is still the bully and Hank is still boyishly meek.
It wouldn’t appear that Andy needs the money, with his swagger, spacious office and lucrative job as a broker. The opening scene takes place as he and his wife, Gina, are vacationing at a luxurious hotel in Rio. But as Masterson’s script shows by skipping around in time before and after the robbery through various characters’ perspectives, Andy is a dude with some dark secrets and expensive habits. (His story line is the most compelling of all; it certainly helps that Hoffman can play this kind of flawed character in his sleep.)
Hank, meanwhile — in yet another scruffy slacker role for Hawke — is divorced, lives in a studio apartment and owes several months of child support to his sharp-tongued ex-wife (Amy Ryan, who also plays a brash character in the excellent “Gone Baby Gone”). He clearly could use the cash, but he doesn’t have the smarts (or the luck) to pull off the crime correctly.
Naturally, nothing goes right, which exacerbates the brothers’ already precarious financial and emotional situations. The worst part is, the jewelry store belongs to their parents (Albert Finney and Rosemary Harris), which should have made it easier since they know everything about the place.
Curiously, neither brother feels guilty about ripping off mom and dad — the store and its contents are insured, after all. And in a gratuitous wrinkle, Hank’s been having an affair with Gina all along and doesn’t seem to suffer a smidgen of remorse over that, either.
As a character drama, “Devil” holds some interest, since the structure allows us to get to know these people, and their problems, in pieces that eventually snap together to form a complete picture. (Michael Shannon and Brian O’Byrne have some blackly funny moments as a couple of low-level thugs who get sucked into the crime.)
But as a thriller it never really gets off the ground. You know that none of this can end well — that’s not hard to predict — but rather than building toward a tense climax, destructive events and vengeful acts merely stack on top of each other until the film drags to its conclusion.
Because there’s no one to root for to make it out of this predicament, it’s hard to feel an engagement with any of the characters. The title comes from an Irish toast: “May you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you’re dead.” None of these people had a chance to make it there in the first place.