How badly can two brothers mess up a supposedly simple robbery? Apparently, very, very badly. This is what we learn in Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead when Hank and Andy try to rob their parents’ jewelry store to cure some financial woes and, well, it doesn’t go according to plan, which is to say their plan did not involve botching the actual robbery and leading to six deaths, including their own mother, in just a few days. Definitely not good.
At the very least, I can say that the movie is done much more pristinely than the brothers’ plan, but, like the attempted robbery, it certainly could have been executed better. Before I get to any of my problems with the film, I must first admit that the acting is superb. The late Phillip Seymour Hoffman is fantastic as Andy, the older brother pushing for the robbery. Then there’s Ethan Hawke (who just loves being in movies that start with “Before”, as he’s been in four such movies) who plays Andy’s younger brother Hank, a loyal, but non-custodial parent (Boyhood, anyone?), behind on child support. Hawke, as he has been known to do, truly captures the role.
Even the supporting actors and actresses perform well, particularly Michael Shannon as Dex, the tough guy who calls people “chico” or “groucho”. No one can fault the acting or even the overall concept of the film. A robbery gone wrong is a solid concept for a movie when done right, and for some of the movie, Lumet does get it right, but there are also several notable flaws.
The whole motive behind the robbery is money troubles for both Andy and Hank, but these troubles are either not detailed enough or not significant enough to merit a $600,000 robbery of their own parents’ merchandise. Yes, Andy does have a drug problem and has been apparently been cooking the books at his real-estate firm — the extent of which is never detailed in terms of money, though it should have been.
However, Hank’s only true money issue is that he’s a few months behind on child support, an issue that his ex-wife (Amy Ryan) will only meet with yelling, but wouldn’t do anything rasher about it. In fact, Hank covers most of his debt with the $2,000 advance he gets on the robbery, so there is no way he could truly be desperate enough to need the $60,000 expected share from the robbery. Besides, couldn’t either of them just go to their parents, who own all of the merchandise they were trying to steal and ask for help or even a loan?
Obviously, this is not what happened, and, as a result, their mom ended up being shot by the man Hank hired to help (Bobby). In terms of Murphy’s Law, this was a great twist (okay, great may not be the right word). And in this instance, the non-linear, changing perspective flow of the movie works incredibly well, as it keeps us from finding out that it was actually the mother who had been shot. Once we do find out, it is a shocking twist that puts into perspective just how horribly they screwed up the job.
In other instances, seeing each scene from every perspective is useful too. However, oftentimes, it just drags the movie as we are watching the same scene several times, with little new information on what is happening.
Really, the movie is exciting at the beginning and the end, while in-between there is too much repetition. The Phillip Seymour Hoffman murder spree to cover his own tracks does wake the viewer back up and accurately displays exactly how desperate he has become, especially considering he has just learned that his wife had been cheating on him with his own brother (news he takes by giving her money for a cab? Surprisingly calm for a guy who’s about to gun some people down).
First, he robs his drug dealer (maybe they should’ve robbed him in the first place?), kills him and a random guy passed out on his bed just for good measure (easily the most innocent victim in the whole movie, poor guy). Next, he goes to tie up another loose end, Dex, the man demanding $10,000 in retribution for leading to his brother-in-law’s death. A fair request which Andy obliges before shooting him, he’s taking no half-measures at this point.
Then comes the climactic confrontational scene between Andy and Hank when Andy turns the gun to Hank and tells him he knows about his affair with his wife. For a scene that should have been so powerful and culminating, all I could think of was how it felt as though I was watching a soap-opera. I’m sure the “I know you’ve been with my wife”, “you’re right, go ahead and shoot me” exchange had been played out on All My Children at least a dozen times in its 41 years on air. Then, predictably, Chris (Bobby’s widowed wife) breaks up the brothers by shooting Andy. Who didn’t see that one coming?
The bullet doesn’t kill Andy, however, and his true cause of death is, admittedly, one of my favorite moments in the movie. In the end, six are dead: Andy and Hank’s mother, Bobby the accomplice, the drug dealer, random drug addict #1, Dex, and Andy himself. Meanwhile, those living — Hank, the father, Andy’s wife, and Chris (Bobby’s wife) — are left infinitely worse off.
It’s hard to have a robbery go any worse than that. In terms of the movie, however, it would have been easy to have it go much better than it did, especially with such great actors involved. Alas, we are left wondering “why didn’t Bobby use a toy gun?” and “why wasn’t that movie as good as it could have been?”