Spoilers like I ain’t got none, what you think I sold ’em all?
I can’t believe it took me so long to see this movie. Somehow excluded from any sort of Oscar recognition, and dismissed by most people I know as too depressing, I let it sit on my computer for about half a year before a lack of TV and internet finally prompted me to resort to watching it. Too depressing? Maybe, but I wouldn’t call it depressing as much as I would call it extremely unsympathetic. It’s a movie not only completely bereft of likeable characters, but of characters who even seem to like each other. Just about every relationship in the movie is a callous, cold-hearted one, a means to an end at best. It’s a movie full of people with very real, very sizeable problems, and with absolutely no one who cares enough to listen to or help with them. It is also, remarkably enough, one of the best family films–err, films about family–made in recent years.
On the heartwarming family film scale, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead ranks maybe a little bit below Punch-Drunk Love and Monsters Ball and a little bit above Psycho and The Good Son. But I find something very strangely touching about the bluntness of the movie, the wrenching honesty of the whole thing. When Hank (Ethan Hawke) shows up at his ex-wife Martha’s (Amy Ryan) apartment to big her for money to keep him out of his potentially fatal troubles, and she unmovedly tells him how little she cares about his affairs unless it involves him paying her his alimony. When Charles (Albert Finney) apologizes to son Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) about neglecting him for so many years, and Andy later explodes at wife Gina (Marisa Tomei) about how unfair it is that Charles is attempting absolution. When Andy browbeats Hank for his fuck-ups, and Hank seethes at him, “STOP TALKING TO ME LIKE THAT!” It’s all horrible, hateful stuff, but it carries with it so much history, so much connection, that you can’t deny a twisted sort of familial lovingness is, on some level, behind it all.
My favorite such dialogue in the movie comes between bros Andy and Hank in its climactic scene. The entire movie has unfolded from a heist that Andy planned and that Hank helped perpetuate of their parents’ small-time jewelry store, which Hank ended up mostly outsourcing to a criminal friend of his (Brian F. O’Byrne) and which ended with both the friend and their mother dead. The cops don’t know about the brothers’ involvement, but the dead friend’s wife Chris (Aleksa Palladino) does, and her brother blackmails the boys to the tune of ten thousand dollars to help pay her bills. But Andy is skeptical about the brother-in-law’s one-time offer, and he’s recently enraged by wife Gina’s admission to a long-standing affair with Hank.
Andy robs and murders his drug dealer to get the money to pay the brother-in-law, but once he gets to Chris’s place, he thinks better of it, and decides to shoot the guy in the head instead. He turns the gun on Chris, but Hank, horrified by his brother’s sudden killing spree, insists that he not pull the trigger, saying that if Andy kills her, he’ll have to kill his brother too. Andy bristles at this suggestion, stating that killing his brother might be such a bad idea in the first place. The two then exchange this dialogue:
“You know I know.”
“What do you know?”
The implication, as even the relatively dim Hank can quickly read, is that Andy knows about the affair his brother has been having with his wife. But the minimalism of the exchange says as much as the words themselves–the fact that the two communicate this life-or-death point on this sort of practically wordless level speaks to the bond that the two clearly have, despite it being twisted by the recent melange of guilt, blackmail, murder and infidelity. What’s more, the devestation in Philip Seymour Hoffman’s voice in the final “I know” is heartbreaking because it carries with it the cumulative disappointment of losing or becoming estranged from everyone you know and love, which Andy has been doing over the whole movie, but probably thought he could at least avoid happening with his own brother.
Big, flowery denouement speeches probably would’ve got the movie an Oscar nod or two. But the brute force of Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead deserved a much rawer climax, and in this exchange, it got one of the most emotionally raw family conversations I’ve ever seen in film.