In February of 2014, the world lost one of the greatest actors of his or any era with the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Of his sixty-plus acting credits, I've seen about a third of them. He's been brilliant in just about every one of them. Even in movies I didn't like, I found his performance to be a highlight. In films that were good, his presence made them even better. This means in both, the craptacular Twister and the oustanding Boogie Nights, Hoffman elevated the material he was given to work with.
Hoffman's death came early in an important and ongoing era here at Dell on Movies. Though the blog is six years old, it was only a few months before this news when I started making an genuine effort to become part of the larger movie blogging community. In that time, I've made a number of blogging buddies. Most of us, myself included, posted something to honor Hoffman. More than a year later, one of those buddies, Jordan Dodd of Epileptic Moondancer fame, has taken it a step farther. He hosted the Philip Seymour Hoffman Blogathon. I say 'hosted' because technically, it's over. The deadline was set for July 23rd and I missed it. I still felt I should do something for a few reasons. On a personal level, Jordan has become a great supporter of this blog and he has a great blog of his own. Check it out, if you haven't. More important than that, Hoffman was The Man. Jordan gave us a long leash, as far as what he wanted from those of us that contribute. We just had to do something involving the man.
I've decided to review the last film ever directed by the late-great Sidney Lumet, 2007's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. This is a fairly typical choice by me, in more ways than one. First, if I had to pick the genre which I think the best movies come from, it would be crime dramas. Therefore, it should be no surprise that this is the film I picked. Second, another contributor, Cindy Bruchman, wrote a wonderful review of the same film. If you've read that one already, reading this might be the equivalent of switching off a world class symphony to listen to a two year old bang on pots with a spoon. I understand this, but I'm doing it anyway.
The story follows Andy (Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke). They are a pair of brothers who both find themselves desperately in need of money. Andy is a real estate exec, but has a serious drug habit. He has been embezzling from his employer to support it. With an audit coming up, he's certain this fact will be exposed. Hank's issues are much more blue-collar, but could also lead to jail time. He's several months behind on his child-support payments. Andy convinces Hank that lots of money is within their grasp. All they have to do is rob a local mom and pop jewelry store. Of course, the store is owned by their real mom and pop.
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead immediately shows us how the robbery goes and still builds a great mystery. The mystery is not a "whodunit," but "how are we gonna get outta this?" We see the entire worlds of the two brothers, both fragile to begin with, unraveling and their psyches with them. Hoffman and Hawke are both excellent. Hank is a guy who just can't keep it together under any sort of pressure. Hawke does an outstanding job showing us man rapidly fraying at the edges, and eventually threadbare before our eyes. Andy's descent is similar, but with the veneer of coolness. Hoffman gives us a man who always likes to appear calm and collected. This is easy for him to do because he always thinks he has everything under control even when it's clear to us that he doesn't. When he realizes things have gotten away from him, his violent meltdown is a sight to behold.
Subplots develop as things spiral further away from our two leads. Not surprisingly, the robbery goes horribly wrong. As always, when the character convincing others to commit a crime says that no one will be hurt, someone does. This aspect of the plot plays out during the robbery and its aftermath which is spearheaded by a character named Dex (Michael Shannon). Beneath it all is a simmering love triangle in which only two people know they are taking part. Here is where Gina resides, played by Marisa Tomei. She is afforded the opportunity to inject emotion on occasion and Tomei shines during these moments. However, she's as much there as eye candy as for her acting. This becomes apparent right at the start of the film. Her and Hoffman perform on the most realistic sex scenes I've ever seen in an R-rated movie. I've heard this and the fact that she appears sans clothing multiple times referred to as gratuitous. That charge is more fair when levied against the opening scene, but even then it's cold nature, both during and after the act, displays the lack of passion in her relationship with Andy, her husband. This scene has a different tone than her later scenes with Hank.
As mentioned, this is the last film helmed by Sidney Lumet. He does a wonderful job. He helps draw us in and paces the movie in near-perfect fashion. One of the devices he uses is jumping back and forth through time. It works for the most part, but is just a bit overdone. The issue is that it goes back to the robbery too many times. Considering this isn't one of those movies where what happens changes depending on who is telling the story, we don't need to see it that often. That small gripe not withstanding, this is a must see for fans of heist movies. However, this is no extended comedy routine like the Ocean's franchise. This is two guys who haphazardly slap a plan together, watch it fail and try to escape the consequences. Philip Seymour Hoffman keeps the movie intriguing by commanding the screen whenever he appears. It's a wonderful performance in a career filled with them.
Click the titles below for my other reviews of Philip Seymour Hoffman films