Before the Devil Knows You're Dead


by Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

In the period just after WW2, the staple of legitimate theater in the United States was "the dysfunctional family drama which shows the pain lurking behind the facade of post-war prosperity." Arthur Miller won a Pulitzer Prize for A Death of a Salesman in 1949, and Eugene O'Neill won the same prize posthumously for A Long Day's Journey into Night in 1957 (which was actually written in 1941). The major plays of Tennessee Williams come from this same period. This sort of play seemed to represent about 100% of the "serious" content of television when I was a kid, in the form of ensemble drama shows like Kraft Television Theater, The Alcoa Hour, The United States Steel Hour, Studio One, and Playhouse 90. These dramas always confused me because the chronically depressed  people in these plays never acted anything like any adults I had ever met. I didn't know anyone who made flowery, tearful speeches about how they should have been better fathers or sons or whatever. As a child I took away a lesson from the confusion I felt: it must be the artist's responsibility to present the other side of life that we never experience on our own. Like many of our childhood illusions, this one was eventually crushed. After having lived in a half dozen different countries and four different states in the USA, and having worked in about fifty different countries in my life; after having spend six decades in contact with people on all parts of the spectra of wealth and education; and after having known real CEOs and Senators and junkies and hookers and mobsters, I have yet to meet anyone who acts like the unsmiling characters in those plays and teleplays. My jaded conclusion is that the artist's real responsibility in those days was to spew out insincere, high-falutin' bullshit.

And THAT I understand. I took an undergraduate degree in English Literature, after all, a field which is planted exclusively with the seeds of insincere high-falutin' bullshit, the sort of analysis that sounds profound and original but is really indefensible blather disguised by enough literary tropes to make it ambiguous and confusing enough that it can't really be refuted, even in the unlikely case that somebody actually figures out what it is supposed to mean. I have done my own fair share of such spewing over the years, and consider myself fairly good at it, and able to recognize it when I see it.

Well, here it is. Right here in this film.

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead was directed by Sidney Lumet, who cut his directorial teeth on the TV shows I mentioned above and others like them in the early fifties. There is really no difference between this film and one of those shows except that this decade is different from the fifties. There are more people doing drugs and carrying guns these days than back then, so this new improved version of Death of a Salesman has the Lomans packing heat and shooting horse.

"But ... but ... I thought it was supposed to be a thriller."

Yeah, that's what I thought before I watched it, but it is not. Not really. It is a Playhouse 90 drama about dysfunctional father-son relationships. In order to develop its themes it uses a bungled crime, and there are some other elements you might find in a thriller, but there are no real twists and turns to navigate. The film begins with the bungled robbery. That is followed by a series of flashbacks in which we discover almost immediately that two brothers planned to rob their parents' suburban jewelry store on a Saturday morning. Flawless idea. They know where everything is. They know what time the store opens on Saturday, and that the old lady who works the weekend shift presents no threat. They plan to carry only a toy gun, so nobody can get hurt, not even accidentally. They know that the insurance company will reimburse the full value of the store's loss.

Yes, they have a great idea. Unfortunately, they don't know how to pull off crimes. How many of us would? They rent a getaway car with a real license and credit card. They talk to a fence about the stolen goods before they even have the jewels in their possession. They bring in a professional bad-ass to accompany the younger brother on the actual robbery, and the dim-witted, cowardly younger brother picks the guy up at his house, so that his wife sees them both head off to commit crimes together. The bad-ass brings a real gun. The woman who was supposed to work the shift has called in sick and the boys' mother is on duty. The younger brother is too much of a chickenshit to go in the store for the robbery, so the bad-ass ends up going it alone, unaware that he's robbing his partner's mom. Mom turns out to be a lot more courageous than the weekend fill-in lady, and everything that could go wrong does go wrong ...

Am I spoiling the film for you? Not at all. That all happens right away. It's not the plot. It's the set-up. The only real plot elements this film has in common with a thriller involve the fact that the police don't know of the brothers' involvement. For all they know, the bad-ass tried to rob mom, and it didn't work out. But the wheels of justice do grind. The boys have left behind a messy trail. The wife of the bad-ass knows the score. The fence knows the score.

And then the rest of the movie is Death of a Salesman. Hands wring. Brothers abuse brothers. Fathers abuse sons. Sons hate fathers. Both brothers are having sex with the same woman, and one of them is married to her. The father begins to realize what happened in the robbery. All the while, people make ever more flowery and depressing speeches. Things start to close in on the brothers. As the noose becomes ever tighter, their desperation is exacerbated by the fact that the older brother is also a junkie and also has both his company and the IRS closing in on him for embezzlement, while the panic-stricken younger brother is a weak person in general and ... well ... not the brightest bulb on the tree. The scenario gets ever more depressing until the audience realizes that it is only a matter of time until some grandiose larger-than-life tragedy must occur.

As I said earlier, imagine Willy Loman packin' heat.

If I were to get a magic wish list with this film, it would be to make some of the melodrama go away. Do they have to check off the entire litany of possible soap opera plots? The brothers sleep with the same woman. They both have dysfunctional families of their own. One is embezzling from his firm, the other is far behind on his child support. The older brother is a junkie, maybe a closeted homosexual as well. They committed matricide (they planned a crime which resulted in the death of their mother, which would be treated as a homicide). The mother is on life support and the father has to decide whether to pull the plug. The older brother's comment on the death of his mother is, "If only it had been him (his dad) instead." The parents preferred one of the sons. And so forth. After a while it felt like piling on.

And I haven't even spoiled the larger-than-life family tragedies at the end.

I only have one question. How could it be that none of the main characters have AIDS? I mean there are three main characters in the play, and one of them is a junkie, possibly a homosexual. Based on screenwriting standards for modern dramas, that must create about a 99% likelihood that one of the three, most likely the older brother, would have AIDS. What happened? You just know the absence of AIDS will cause this film to lose some Oscar nominations to appropriate AIDS-based drama.

Is it a good film? Yes, I suppose so. Everybody else seems to think so, so I guess I just don't really like Arthur Miller or Eugene O'Neill plays. It received 88% positive reviews and is scored high at IMDb.  But it's certainly not a good thriller. There are times when the pace drags down to a crawl, which would be fatal for a thriller, but not for a stagy morality play about a dysfunctional family. It is quite good in the sense that it is effective at dragging the audience through the emotional wringer with the wimpy younger brother.  He's not only afraid the cops will catch him, but he's afraid of the bad-ass's wife, his brother, and his father. And yet, though he is feckless and a complete wimp, he is the only character we can really sympathize with because he is the only one who seems to know the difference between right and wrong and, even if he does not always choose the right means, he usually has a good-hearted end in mind. So we feel his panic in our own throats as the noose tightens. The ability to transmit his tension to the audience is good filmmaking.


Commentary by Lumet, Hawke, and Hoffman

25 minute "Making of" featurette


Commentary by Lumet, Hawke, and Hoffman

25 minute "Making of" featurette



3 James Berardinelli (of 4 stars)
4 Roger Ebert (of 4 stars)
88 Rotten Tomatoes  (% positive)
88 (of 100)













7.6 IMDB summary (of 10)
B Yahoo Movies











Box Office Mojo. It took in decent arthouse numbers: grossing $6 million despite never reaching more than 321 theaters.










  • Marisa Tomei showed her breasts in three scenes. Portions of her bum are seen at various times, but there is never a clear look at it in its entirety. This was chosen as the #1 or #2 nude scene of the year in various year-end surveys.
  • Phil Hoffman showed his bum in a scene which was mercifully dark.
  • Ethan Hawke showed his bum.



Our Grade:

If you are not familiar with our grading system, you need to read the explanation, because the grading is not linear. For example, by our definition, a C is solid and a C+ is a VERY good movie. There are very few Bs and As. Based on our descriptive system, this film is a: