PSH: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

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What do you make of an actor who played jerks, the morally decrepit, and the bizarre perfectly? Highly popular and respected. Since 1992, critics and fans have praised him when he stepped into the spotlight as the snobby-bully George Willis Jr., in Scent of a Woman. I laughed at him in Twister (1996) and admired him in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999). Considered a character actor for a good part of his career, he gained the respect of his colleagues by avoiding stock performances. He brought chemistry, sardonic wit, and authenticity to his characters; in short, his characters were believable and often raised the acting of his co-stars. Here’s an example from Cold Mountain (2003) where PSH plays the hypocritical preacher:

Cold Mountain is one of the best movies from the last twenty years. Hoffman’s dark, humorous performance added depth to the story while the outrageous personality of the preacher felt real. Devious characters became fascinating when Philip Seymour Hoffman was acting.  

There are director/actor relationships that seize a moment and define a decade. For example, DeNiro, DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese mutually benefited from their relationships. In Philip Seymour Hoffman’s case, his collaboration with director Paul Thomas Anderson was significant. Their films included: Hard Eight (1996), Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999), Punch-Drunk-Love (2002), and The Master(2013). While I do think actor Toby Jones was born for the role, PSH did a fine job as a giant version of Truman Capote in 2005 for which he won Best Actor at the Oscars.

Thank you, JORDAN for allowing me to contribute to the PSH Blogathon. I chose the 2007 crime drama written by Kelly Masterson  and directed by the late, great Sidney Lumet who deserves a tribute post all of his own. Some of my favorite films of his include: Twelve Angry Men (1957), Long Day’s Journey into Night (1962), Serpico (1973), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and Network (1976). 

Leave it to the Irish to come up with this dark, humorous drinking toast: May you be in heaven for a half an hour before the devil knows you’re dead. I think it sums up the story perfectly. Can you escape from your sins?

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Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is a crime drama about two brothers who are in desperate need of cash. The older, clever brother is Andy Hanson (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who works as an accountant at a New York City firm while his cute brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) is submissive and bullied by an ex-wife and his brother. Hank is a loser; he can’t seem to get a financial grip on his life. He’s troubled by private school tuition payments for his daughter and hounded for three months back-pay in child support.

Andy makes a good case for committing a burglary. Andy has a heroin addiction to support and wants to escape the drudgery of a New York life and live easy in Rio with his sexy wife, Gina (Marisa Tormei), who pranced around half-naked and whose only function in the film is to be screwed by males with the last name of Hanson. It is not a role showcasing Tormei’s intellect; at least in The Gambler the character Cassidy showed off her T & A and had half a brain. I think Tormei can act, so it’s disappointing she is restricted to a superficial level set by the graphic, unnecessary opening scene. I blame Kelly Masterson’s screenplay for that. However, Tormei’s curves are much admired by many for my wagging finger to matter. She is the eye candy, and after all, the film is about the brothers.

The best aspect of the film is the outstanding acting by Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney (Sidney Lumet and Finney last worked together on Murder on the Orient Express) and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Andy’s logic is convincing enough to manipulate his brother and that’s important if the audience is going along for the ride. With a toy gun and full insurance to compensate the owners of the jewelry store, and a place Andy knows where he can unload the jewels for cash, it’s a full-proof plan and the perfect heist. Sure, I see his logic.

Now the film becomes a dark comedy. What kind of whack job is this? The owners of the jewelry store are his parents, Andy’s heroin supplier is brought into the scheme, and their grieving father sets out to find the perpetrators. Dramatic irony is one of my favorite rhetorical devices, and it works well here, adding a complex layer in the script. I liked the multi-angled editing to revisit a conversation from a different perspective. I also liked the over-exposed filter used during filming at key moments to stress their stark situation. If you like crime dramas, great acting, and dark humor, you’d love this Philip Seymour Hoffman film.

8/10

50 thoughts on “PSH: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

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  1. A great collaboration between the wonderful Lumet, and a fine cast at the top of their game. I am also a huge fan of ‘Cold Mountain’, which was such a reward for devoted readers of the book (like myself) who expected to be disappointed, and were not. I agree that Toby Jones had the edge on ‘Capote’ with his portrayal of the writer, but Hoffman left behind a legacy of memorable character performances. Great stuff Cindy.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    1. Hi Pete: I loved Charles Frazier’s first (!) book, too. I wish I had written it. The film version did a great job allowing an ensemble cast to shine brighter than the love story between Inman and Ada. I LOVED the character Ruby played by Renee Zellweger. Quite pleased she won an Oscar for that performance.

  2. PSH is one of my all-time favourites and I’m glad he’s getting so much attention in this blogathon. I have seen Before the Devil Knows Your Dead twice and can never seem to decide how I feel about it. It’s an unquestionably well-made movie that doesn’t quite hit me on a gut level. it is a strong contender fo PSH’s best perofrmance ever though. My personal favourites include The Savages, Magnolia, and Doubt.

      1. We saw SO many sides of him throughout his career and, yes, surprisingly tender and sweet in magnolia. Loved him in Mission: Impossible too, I’m a big fan of that kind of casting. I thought it was the perfect follow-up to the Oscar-winning Capote.

  3. Hoffman was a force. I remember noticing him first in the dreadful Twister but as he got more roles, he rally just rose above it all. He elevated the material in anything he was in. I see in the comments you mention MI3, which is my fav o f the series because I think Hoffman made it real, lifting Cruise with him. I reviewed on my site. I do like Devil Knows Your Dead very much and I love the chemistry between the two leads. Gripping movie. Well written review.

    1. Hi David, thank you for taking the time to comment; your opinion matters! Yes, Twister is dreadful, but hey, back then the CGI was new and it was fun. Hoffman always delivered. His short, yet prolific career had a far reaching impact.

      1. It still hits me in the gut when I realize there will be no more. I just watched A Most Wanted Man and really liked it. He was so gifted.

  4. Excellent post about PSH’s career as a whole and about this movie in particular. I’m a big fan of both. I loved PSH in everything I’ve seen him in and this movie kept me on the edge of my seat. I was thinking about reviewing it myself for this blogathon. I still might, but you’ve done it justice.

  5. Hoffman was a very good actor. His film selection didn’t seem to hurt him much in the public eye – some being less than front line. Critics liked them tho. He was memorable and had great command on screen. Gone too early – as much was yet to come.

    1. He was smart to select indie type films where he had a better chance to play interesting characters. Then he’d punch it with blockbusters and it jazzed up the outcome. He always added, never detracted. Thanks for your comment, JC

  6. This is one of those films I REALLY want to see but I missed it when it was on Netflix. I’ll have to search if Amazon has it. I’m sure PSH is excellent and I like the entire cast too, Finney, Tomei, Hawke, wow! Great review Cindy!

  7. sorry cindy, but I can generate no enthusiasm for ths creature whose awful presence has ruined many a movie for me. Nce to hear some good thngs about Lumet, though. He was one of the best, and most under-appreciated of American directors,

  8. Hi Cindy. I had a notification of a new post about Witness For The Prosecution, but can’t find it on your blog. I don’t know if my links are not working, or if it has been pulled. Just for information. Pete.

  9. Great to see this film highlighted (and Hoffman’s performance, too). I wish more people would watch this, it doesn’t seem to be very well known, and I love the fact Lumet kept up such high standards to the end of his life and career.

  10. Great tribute to the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. He was a superb actor. And I agree, Seymour Hoffman was superb as Capote, but Toby Jones felt even more like Capote. I loved both versions.
    Plus a great tribute Sidney Lumet, through Lumet’s last film. I agree Marisa Tormei was wasted, just any actress, way less talented than Tormei, could have been used for that role.
    I love Cold Mountain too. One of the best films set during American Civil War.
    Nice Post.

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