"May you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you're dead."
It comes from an Irish toast, that quote, and it's also the first thing we see as director Sidney Lumet begins his latest film, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. It's open for interpretation, in the way that it's used here, however Lumet chose to follow up the quote with a graphic opening shot of a barenaked Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) on his knees, and a naked Gina (Marisa Tomei) bent over on all fours in front of him. They're having sex. Some of the best sex they've had in years. If only life was always like this for Andy and Gina; unfortunately, it's not. This is vacation sex for a married couple -- away from the hustle and bustle of the big city, where the most important decision of the day revolves around which swanky restaurant to eat dinner at. They're in Brazil; Rio to be exact. And this is heaven. Both enjoy their brief, passionate encounter -- and discuss how great it would be to move to Rio and live out their days on a beach -- but then, eventually, return home to New York City ... where all hell breaks loose.
See, Andy is having money problems. He's got a great job, sure -- as head of payroll for a real estate firm -- and lots of cash to boot, but he's a sneaky crook with an expensive drug habit. Money-wise, his younger brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) is in a similar situation. He's a few months behind on child support payments to his ex-wife, and as much as he loves his daughter -- and would do anything to provide for her -- his drinking problem, a lack of motivation and the fact that he's sleeping with his brother's wife isn't helping put money in the bank. As more and more funds disappear, and as both brothers are forced into a corner they're not sure how to escape from, Andy comes up with a full-proof plan to fill their pockets: rob a Mom & Pop jewelry store. Except, there's one problem -- that Mom & Pop jewelry store is owned and operated by -- you guessed it -- Andy and Hank's own mom and pop.
Hank, who's the more reasonable and compassionate out of the two, has a very hard time going through with this plan. His parents have insurance, which is a plus, but they're still his parents. That said, he hires a drinking buddy/petty tough-as-nails thief to help him hold up the joint. When the heist goes terribly wrong, leaving two dead bodies in its wake, Hank, Andy, their father Charles (Albert Finney), Gina, and everyone around them are thrust into a downward spiral that twists and turns in many different directions before coming to a tragic conclusion.
It's a straight-up melodrama at its best, which, as Lumet stated at the post-screening press conference, is when the story defines the characters. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is all story, and out of that, surprisingly, comes one of the best performances Ethan Hawke has ever put out there, as well as equally-impressive turns from Hoffman, Tomei and especially Finney. The script (written by playwright Kelly Masterson) in other hands, with other actors involved, most likely would have churned out a decent, but easily forgettable drama. But with Lumet, and this cast, we get a film that's exceptional in every way -- from its execution to its acting -- and is sure to go down as one of Lumet's best in years.
At 83 years-old, Lumet still manages to deliver this film in a captivating, edge-of-your-seat fashion. In doing so, he splits it up into fragments (which were in the script, but never clearly defined); the film would follow one character for the three days leading up to the robbery, then we'd backtrack and follow another character on the day of the robbery, followed by yet another the week after the robbery. Each time, little clues are revealed that, for the viewer, eventually add up and piece together just in time to enjoy the gun-wrenching ending that you see coming, but don't want to believe when it finally arrives.
Tomei, as Hoffman's "trophy wife," is sexy in all the right spots. Even though her nudity throughout (for the first hour, the girl is either topless or full-on nekked) sort of takes a little away from her character, as the plot develops we see a conflicted woman who wants to be closer to her husband, and when that time finally comes, avoids the closeness like the plague. She doesn't know what she really wants, and neither do we, but the same goes for all the characters. What we're left with is a cruel fact: love hurts. It stings, it bruises and, ultimately, it could ruin the lives of everyone around you. But if you can enjoy a piece of heaven before the pain comes steamrolling in -- then, well, perhaps it was all worth it.
The New York Film Festival will hold public screenings of Before the Devil Knows You're Dead on Friday, October 12 at 6pm and Saturday, October 13 at 12:45pm.