(For publication in this week’s Exponent.)
William Blake writes, “Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained.”
You? You need money. You’ve played the charade of having plenty—being on top—for too long now. But really, you’re behind. Way behind. Your eight-to-five just doesn’t cut it, and now you’re up to your ears in debt.
What do you do? You’re too old to ask Mom and Dad to bail you out—even though they could afford it.
William Blake writes, “The weak in courage is strong in cunning.” Meet your brother, Andy Hansen (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
Suppose Andy takes you out for a beer. He knows you need money. Truth be told, he does too. But he’s got a plan that’ll solve all your problems.
He explains: you’ll knock off a mom-and-pop jewelry store. One he knows. A store you both know, inside and out. Down to the last detail: who will be working, where the alarm buzzer is, the amount of cash in the safe.
You don’t like it. You’re behind, but not a criminal. He’s right, though: you need the money. You’ll make $60,000, in a day—in a few hours. It’s easy. It’s foolproof. And the store’s insured, so it’s a victimless crime. The plan seems perfect…
But, things don’t always go as planned.
That’s the set up for “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.” Only, you’re not “you,” you’re Hank (Ethan Hawke), son of two upper-middle-class parents who run a suburban jewelry store. When the plan goes wrong, the things spiral out of control into an intense drama about family, trust, betrayal and desperation—punctuated by moments of levity and well-crafted plot twists.
If it existed, this year’s Oscar for Best Ensemble Cast would go to “Before the Devil Knows.” Ethan Hawke plays Hank, Andy’s younger brother. Oscar winners Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Albert Finney, and Marisa Tomei, round out the ensemble as Andy, Andy’s father and Andy’s wife. Nuanced and forceful performances by the entire cast drive the film, making it believable and hit close to home.
In a year where the top contenders for Best Picture are “There will be Blood” and “No Country for Old Men,” “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” is another testament to human avarice and dissolution. You’ll feel miserable but engrossed—like only great cinema can make you feel. And, isn’t that the point of great art? To remind us how thoroughly base and dissolute we are? How utterly worthless and without hope? The movie allows its viewer two options: grasping inhuman ambition, or, worse, a fate of impotent obscurity.
The movie leaves you guessing. It seems to celebrate modern humanity at its worst, by depicting modern humanity at its best. And, when the closing credits appear, you may find yourself shouting a string of surprised and angry obscenities. If this movie doesn’t surprise, assault and traumatize your emotions, you’re not paying close attention.
If you want a movie that will reassure you—that will remind you of human capacities for love and forgiveness—a film that’s enjoyable to watch and gives you closure, this movie isn’t for you. Go see Atonement, instead. You’ll be the happier for it. But if you think film is important—if you prefer film that is challenging, that works under your skin, that keeps you up at night—you’ll likely appreciate “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.”
William Blake writes, “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” But in the judgment of director and film demigod Sidney Lumet, Blake’s wrong. Blake, “Before the Devil Knows” would say, is dead wrong.
“Before the Devil Knows” will show exclusively at the Procrastinator Theatre this Thursday, Friday at 7:00 and 9:30 pm, and Saturday at 4:00, 7:00 and 9:30 pm (14-16 Feb).