My favorite Philip Seymour Hoffman performance is in the 2007 dark thriller Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, which I’ve called the decade’s most overlooked American film. It’s the gripping story of two very different brothers in a study of greed and desperation. Hoffman’s brilliant but amoral character needs money and suggests to his sad sack brother (Ethan Hawke) that they rob their parent’s jewelry store. Unlike many of his schlubby roles, Hoffman’s character here is talented, successful and supremely confident that he deserves even more than he has earned. Hoffman gives one his best performances as he tries to stay in control of his increasingly hopeless circumstances – melting down internally but harnessing all of his energy in a futile attempt to regain control.
Hoffman’s fellow actors are superb. A.O. Scott wrote of Hawke’s character: “If you gave him a quarter to feed the meter, you’d end up with a parking ticket and a stream of pathetic apologies.” Marisa Tomei has a showcase scene when her character lays one more devastating development on her hubbie (Hoffman). And Albert Finney takes over the movie in the very last scene. The film was directed by the 84-year-old Sidney Lumet (who was first nominated for an Oscar for 12 Angry Men in 1957).
Another thing – Hoffman’s movie characters rarely got the girl (and some – such as in Happiness – were outright perverted), but here he gets to bang away on Marisa Tomei with vigor and relish.
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Hulu.