BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD directed by Sidney Lumet (USA, 2007)
It comes from a Irish proverb (“May you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you’re dead”) and turned out to be Lumet’s swan song (he died in 2011) as well as being one of a long list of films that stand as testament to the greatness of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.
To say that it is a story of a dysfunctional family is a massive understatement.
Hoffman plays Andy Hanson who bullies younger brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) into carrying out the botched robbery of a ‘mom and pop’ store and Albert Finney is the overbearing father who discovers the horrible truth about his sons.
With hindsight, you can see in Hoffman’s character a glimpse of his real life persona. On the surface he seems assured and successful in his work but while high on heroin (irony upon irony!) he talks of the nagging self doubt that consumes him: “The thing about real estate accounting is that you can, you can, add down the page or across the page and everything works out. Everyday, everything adds up. The total is always the sum of its parts. It’s clean. It’s clear. Neat, absolute. But my life, it, uh, it doesn’t add up. Nothing connects to anything else. I’m not, I’m not the sum of my parts. All my parts don’t add up to one… to one me, I guess”.
Lumet described one scene where Hoffman breaks down in grief and despair as one of the most extraordinary pieces of acting he’d ever witnessed. Coming from a director who’d worked with some of the cinema greats (Henry Fonda, Pacino, Brando etc.) this is high praise indeed.
The director insisted on calling his film a melodrama, arguing that it is an example of events determining character and not vice versa. He has a point but this in no way undermines the intensity of the story where a heist of a ‘mom and pop’ store goes tragically wrong.
By presenting details in non linear way we get to see the horror unfold from different perspectives as though in terrible slow motion. The disastrous consequences are as inevitable and they are tragic.
It is a movie that is powerful and uncompromising in its overriding message that in life and death there is no redemption.