Ethical Movie Review: ‘Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead’

Ethical Movie Review: 'Before the Devil Knows You're Dead' - or, how to quickly fail your philosophy of ethics 101 course
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Greetings class. I am so happy that you decided to join us in the 401 level Philosophical Ethics college course. I think we are going to learn a lot as we unpack, digest, and lobotomize the movie that is ‘Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.’ This movie discussion will be unlike any other movie course that we have offered here at THiNC. University. Why? Well, because there is just so much to learn from here that I really think it will be better if we just take Andy (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) as an ethical archetypal anti-hero character study. (SEE!? That was so complex, I don’t even know what it means! This college course thing is going to get lit! Get out your dictionary and buckle up.) So shall we? Alright, here we go, the Ethical Movie Review: ‘Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.’

First, we have to start out with you having seen the movie. You can read this review without having watched the movie. And you’ll possibly understand most of it in context. But you’ll definitely come away with a ton more from this course if you ACTUALLY DO THE HOMEWORK! So, here. A few links for you…Prime, Youtube, & Vudu.

So, yes? You are going to do your homework before you continue on? Great. No, apples on my desk is not a workable substitution for actually doing the work. And, while you are watching, your assignment is to stop watching Hank (played by Ethan Hawke, literally the first time I’ve ever said that about Mr. Hawke. I adore his work. Always have.) and instead solely concentrate on Andy. And while you are watching him, I want you to list motivators and drivers for his actions. Things that propel him forward day after day. After you’ve done that, I want your best theory to describe what caused him to circle the drain…ultimately. There is plenty here to choose from.

Now, I know the above is probably making some of you laugh. The whole college course bit? Yeah. But the funny thing is, I do literally think there is a college class here. Sure, there isn’t an entire semester’s worth of learnings here. But there is plenty for a week’s worth of classes anyway. That and 3 or 4 ten-page papers from each student in the class. (What? When I was in school I wrote 10 pages a night from one professor alone. Dr. Le Roy, here’s looking at you buddy! Le Roy has since moved on to become the President of Calvin University. Huh. There’s a shocker.) Enough to unpack for a week’s worth of research, grappling, and vaunted discussions in a class setting.

An Evaluation of Andy’s Life Choices

One of the interesting cinematic choices of Kelly Masterson’s screenplay (Masterson happens to be the accomplished screenplay writer who also wrote the Snowpiercer) was the way in which he took the fairly straightforward narrative and hit it with a blendo-matic-5000. Utterly decimated the chronology to pieces. I will also mention, because it’s interesting as all get out, that Kelly Masterson was a former Franciscan brother. A brother who left the order just before being ordained. And yes, that little detail is 100% worth noting…because, remember, this is an ethics course we are conducting here. And while we are still talking about the cinematic choices, we should also mention that Sidney Lumet is our director here. (Uh, who is Lumet? Oh, nobody, just the gent that directed Serpico, Murder on the Orient Express, Dog Day Afternoon, etc etc etc.) So yes. These blendo-matic decisions were not only premeditated by Mr. Masterson within his script (which I just finished reading – and you too can find right here.) The script is really a marvel. But all of that is totally and completely besides the point. Because, what we care about in this ethics course is Andy, his motivations, and the philosophical underpinnings of his decisions and their repercussions. So with that in mind – shall we walk through Andy’s life choices in the movie, from beginning to end? Great.

Our dear Andy is something of a financial executive at a firm that deals with real estate. Now, as it would happen, Andy knows that he is about to get busted for embezzling from the company because the company is conducting a front-to-back audit of the organizations finances. Andy has been embezzling from his company in order to support a wicked mean drug habit. In order to keep from going to jail, Andy has decided he is going to flee to Brazil with his wife, Gina (Marisa Tomei). The movie actually opens with the two of them in Brazil, talking about escaping their lives back home and escape their problems here in Brazil. So, even before the movie starts, if we do a little mental math, we can already see that Andy is a liar, an embezzler, and a drug addict. I say we give Andy a little rope and see what he does with it.

Ethical Movie Review: 'Before the Devil Knows You're Dead'

In order to escape, Andy needs a pile of cash. Thankfully though, Andy has a plan. And that plan is to convince his stupid younger brother Hank (played by Ethan Hawke), to rob their parents’ jewelry store. Obviously Hank isn’t going to do it, because DUH. Oh, but he does. And it’s because Hank has his own little world of problems. Namely that he is behind on his child support, and his gambling habit is really starting to catch up with him. Apparently the apple doesn’t fall to far from the tree. Thankfully we are not holding Andy responsible for Hank’s sins, because Hank is also sleeping with Andy’s wife. Yeah. I know. This ethics course is already off the rails. Have you noticed that? Anyway, so Gina is here with Hank, mainly because Andy is 100% preoccupied with his drug habit and with attaining the funds necessary to keep it going. And the Andy drug habit comes from a place of insecurity within his own family. Hank received more love and affection from their parents, and Andy feels like an imposter in his own family. THUS the plan to steal from his parents. Is this flywheel starting to make any sense? Because the inertia on this monster is pretty impressive…and absolutely nothing has happened yet!

Where were we – oh yes – the robbery. Andy, the mastermind, the grand genius of this plot, has figured that no one will get hurt. The place is insured. They get in. They get out. And next thing they know, they’ll be walking with $120,000 after fencing the jewels. But Hank is mortally afraid to rob the place, and so he invites Bobby Lasorda (played by Brian F. O’Byrne) to do both Andy and Hank’s dirty work. Because we are literally all rocket scientists now, we know, that the job goes nine shapes of pear. Worse, Nanette (played by Rosemary Harris) is the one working this morning. Nanette being Andy and Hanks’ mother. And pear shaped goes upside down when Nanette pulls a gun on Bobby. The next thing we know, both of them are wearing bullet holes in their chests. Nanette ends up dead a week later, and Charles begins investigating his wife’s murder on his own.

But let’s get back to Andy. Notice how quickly we left him in the dust? Andy wound up his brother, pointed his chaos in the direction of his parents, and let him go. He isn’t even man enough to conduct the robbery himself. But our puppet master is convinced everything will be just fine. Minus the fact that it ends up getting two people killed…one of whom is his mother. This perfect plan of Andy’s has sent Hank over the edge. Especially after Bobby’s widow’ brother, Dex, pays Hank a visit asking for cash in order to provide for his wife. Now he is back due on months of child care as well as a botched jewelry robbery’s wife. There is a lesson in here somewhere about self destructive behaviors arriving from snowballing stress. But it literally seems too obvious to even say it out loud.

Well, Andy’s countdown to jail is only getting shorter. While he was hatching the perfect robbery heist, the people at work and the audit are only getting closer to finding him out. Mid-Nanette-wake, Andy and his father have a pretty substantial emotion interaction. (Which is sort of nice that he can emotionally respond to anyone, but it’s fairly sad that it takes killing his mother to do it.) But the positive emotions snap to a close when Andy insinuates that he might not actually be a member of the family somehow.

Back at home, Gina tries to get through to Andy emotionally…attempting to ride the emotional wave from the wake. But Andy literally cannot even hear what she’s saying. And it’s mainly because he is so wrapped up in the tendrils of his ‘ingenious’ plans – so wrapped up he’s literally strangling in them. Andy is his own entropy tidal wave. And before Andy realizes it, Gina is admitting she’s having an affair with Hank. But that doesn’t get him to react either.

Now, here’s an interesting bit. Charles, remember, Andy and Hank’s father… well, in his search for more info about the robbery, he visits the fence that his son had visited. How did this happen? No, who cares how it happened. The better question is this: Why does Charles have a fence that he has been using for years and years? Charles is in the jewelry business for the love of all that is good and holy! Has Charles been stealing from himself, fencing the goods, and then getting insurance to cover the loss? Is this the prime mover in Andy’s dark brain? Have you heard of the concept of the ‘sins of the father’? In the Bible (oh, hush, a little Bible won’t melt you), specifically in Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Numbers, it talks about how the failings of one generation will be passed down from one generation to another. Think about it, do you have a weight problem? Did your father? What about a tax fraud problem? Your parents? Did they? Are your moral flaws similar to your parents failings? Obviously it isn’t perfect. But it is generally true. It’s very true in my own life. And it is decidedly true in Charles and Andy’s lives.

Andy flushes the moral plunger now…because, some how, he assumes that the best way to dig his way out of this ethical blackmail pit he’s in is to rob a heroin dealer, and then to head back to Brazil. You do know the definition of insanity right? Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. But at the dealer’s apartment Andy and Hank are actually able to overpower the dealer and another guy that was there. But Hank’s mind is blown when Andy kills them both. Now, the brothers head to Dex to pay off the bribe, but Andy, who is now in full-fledged Satan mode, kills Dex in order to avoid having to make future blackmail payments. Andy then turns to kill Bobby’s widow, Chris, but Hank stops him. The Rubicon having long since been crossed, Andy turns the gun on Hank, and reveals that he knows about the affair that he has been having with his wife, Gina. But when Hank begs Andy to kill him, he hesitates, giving Chris the opportunity to shoot Andy. Hank then leaves some of the drug money for Chris, and takes the rest.

But Gods’ righteous right hand of judgement has been coming for Andy – he just doesn’t know it yet. After leaving the fence, Charles began tailing Andy. He followed him to their meeting with Chris. And then Charles follows the wounded Andy to the hospital. Thankfully, Andy comes to his senses and apologizes to his father. It’s a really heartwarming moment. The father, in a picture of Christ-like grace, accepts Andy’s apology. Then, in a confusing move, Charles removes Andy’s heart monitor, and puts it on himself. And then, our Christ-like figure takes a pillow and suffocates his son there in his hospital bed. Replacing the monitor, Charles walks away as the nurses rush to Andy.

Ethical Movie Review: 'Before the Devil Knows You're Dead'

The Confessions of Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

The movie’s title actually comes from an Irish toast I hear. “May you be in Heaven half an hour before the Devil knows you’re dead.” Only glitch? This entire ensemble of characters are running several days late on the ethical time scale.

When I first watched the film, I originally assumed that this was Hank’s story. It is his plight that we are most concerned about. It’s his child support that we want him to find. It’s his stupid mistakes that we watch pile up. But as the movie careened to a horrifying final act, I realized I was watching the wrong person all along. It was Andy’s puppet mastering that manipulated Andy into a desperate robbery that ended with their mother dead. It was Andy that came up with the plan to attack and kill the heroin dealer. It was Andy that killed Dex. And it was Andy’s final act that tried, yet failed, to convince his father that he was sorry. I don’t even really know what happened to Hank in the end. The story doesn’t really say, it really doesn’t matter. We can guess that Hank retrieved Gina, and maybe they retreated to Brazil? Even so, his life is not going to be great. He’s separated from his daughter. He has child support still due. He’s on the run. And maybe there is a father out there still gunning for him? But all that is besides the point. It’s Andy’s story after all.

Class. Andy is unbelievably morally repugnant in every way. If you are hoping for an example of exactly what NOT to do, this would be your guy. But the root of his ethical flaws had nothing to do with his stealing, murdering, or any other externally obvious sin. The root of Andy’s true flaws was that he was possibly one of the single most selfish individuals I’ve ever seen on film. He myopically only thinks about his heroin habit, and the auditors coming for him. He is careless about anyone getting hurt at his parent’s shop. He wages a murderous rampage that is solely out to amass wealth that will release him from the cares and responsibilities of this world. As a result, his father (of ALL people) kills Andy in revenge for his wife’s killing. Yet another way in which father and son are both cut from the same cloth.

This film might have been written by a Franciscan brother, but it definitely wasn’t a redemptive story of grace. In fact, it seemed more cut from the Old Testament (Eye for an Eye) than from the New. And from an ethical standpoint, Andy failed our course. Living a life selfishly, totally ignoring his wife, throwing his brother in a moral dumpster fire, in effect murdering his mother, and lying outright to his father when it mattered most, and heck, even murdering his dealer! Andy isn’t grasping what this life thing is really all about. Or maybe it’s Andy that is operating on a higher plan and we are just missing the larger cosmological play here? I don’t know, what did you think of the film?

Edited by: CY