Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

Despite being known as a character actor before landing “The Sopranos,” it is very easy to imagine Gandolfini casting his lot with a role that loyal viewers will see as mirroring his television work in an attempt to win respectability after his previous misses at the box office. God knows many others have gone this route in their attempt to transfer to a new medium, even if this film is only a small-budgeted independent picture. But I was hoping more from the actor…so I was pleased to find out a few days later that the part of Andy will be played by Dermot Mulroney (“About Schmidt”). Gandolfini plays second fiddle here, but still has a plum part.


Essentially a character study, this script does have its drawbacks. But there is one thing I’m convinced of after reading this: James Cromwell (“L.A. Confidential”) has an amazing role that he will be given plaudits for and, should this film be correctly handled by Artisan Entertainment, he has a good shot at a nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role.

SPOILER WARNING!

This script review includes major plot points to “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.” Read at your own risk.

The film begins in Fairfield, CT, at the fictional Hanson’s Jewelers. No sooner has the elderly wife of the store flipped the “We’re Open” placard than when the unthinkable happens: A masked assailant, who we later learn is named Bobby, enters and demands that she give him the keyring for the display counter. Dropping them on the floor in a seeming bout of nervousness, she momentarily averts the intruder’s attention enough for her to grab a hidden gun under the counter. Drawing their weapons on each other, they both wound the other grievously. For the frail shopkeeper, she is blown backwards by the gunshot’s impact and loses consciousness, lapsing into a coma that she will not wake up from. The viewer sees Bobby stagger out of the shop and drops dead on the pavement outside. The getaway car, manned by Hank Tillinger (Gandolfini), speeds away at this sight.

Through the initial view of Tillinger, the audience then sees how this all came to be, both in what caused this to all unfold and the steps taken to set up the robbery. Both Hanson and Tillinger are in dire straits financially and see this as a bloodless way to bail themselves out as a temporary fix. For Tillinger, it is in relief of the alimony payments he’s behind on and will help to pay off the bookies. For Hanson, who also is beset by monetary problems as he struggles to keep up with the costs of keeping his disabled son in a hospital facility, it also offers a chance to get that house in Westchester County that his wife is nagging him on. As Hank says at one point in the screenplay, “Ya ever feel like the faster you run, the more you stay in placer I mean ya try and try and keep runnin’, keep runnin’, and then you look up and you haven’t gone anywhere. F***in’ nowhere.”

Moving its focus on Andy, the screenplay picks apart the initial plan that he constructed for the heist. Tillinger himself was to go into the store with a starter pistol and make off with $100,000 worth of jewelry. By pawning it for half its value and splitting the profits evenly, and with insurance covering the stolen items for Hanson’s, they look at it as a victimless crime. Egging on Tillinger, he explains to him as he was a child, “Nobody gets hurt. Everybody wins.” But, as Tillinger enlists Bobby to be the do the heavy lifting in this crime by entering the store, this is where the first twist takes place: The jewelry store is owned by Andy’s father, Charles Hanson (played by Cromwell), which manages to turn the film’s scope 180 degrees. Do you have an inkling of what is about to unfold now?

The twist that comes roughly one-third into the screenplay is actually pretty well masked prior to this point; I can find only one single spoken reference to Andy’s surname before the twist is revealed. And this is where the after-effects of the blown caper begin to feed a vicious cycle of retribution. As Andy, an accountant by trade, had pointed out in an earlier scene, “Here’s the great thing about accounting: You can add down the page or across the page and everything works out. Every day, everything adds up. The total is always the sum of its parts. Clean. Neat. Clear. Absolute. I have a job I like. A salary I like. An apartment I like. A boy I adore.” As he swallows at this point and blinks tears, he delivers the edict: “But it doesn’t add up. Not down or across. Nothing connects to anything else. I am the sum of my parts. All my parts don’t add up to one…one me.”

Moving on to a focus on Charles, we see his last day with his wife, which is also coincidentally his birthday. It’s pretty mundane, really— at least until, returning from taking the driver’s exam, he finds his store surrounded by police and his wife being taken to the hospital. Making the eventual heart-breaking decision to take her off life-support, he is left with the question of why anyone would do this to his wife. Knowing that a second man was involved in the crime (he actually locked eyes with a disguised Tillinger as he drops his wife off at the store that morning), he vows to close the store until the man is caught. He is now driven only by revenge.

The younger Hanson and Tillinger’s lives also begin to unravel. Tillinger forgets to switch the stolen plates off of the rental car he used to perpetrate the crime, causing the rental agency to call the police, and is confronted by the brother of Bobby’s girlfriend, who knows that Bobby was with Tillinger the morning of his death. Hanson begins to obsess over his paramour, a male hooker who collects a shrine of $100 bills, and his wife tells him she had committed adultery herself, with Tillinger. While visiting his son, Andy realizes the scope of how a simple burglary has begun to affect every facet of his life and breaks down in tears.

The pay-off comes as Charles begins to figure out his son is behind the botched robbery. A careless comment by Andy that “if he could take it back, he would” comes back to haunt Charles. He realizes his son is a patron at the same bar the now-deceased Bobby frequented. An old jeweler tells Andy his son had come in earlier that month to see if he could hock jewelry there, saying it’s “ironic such a good man would have such a bad son.” It all fits into place for Charles: His son, who he had always favored, was the cause of his wife’s death

Although the ending is not a happy one by any stretch of the imagination as Andy begs for forgiveness from his father, the end scenes — and especially Charles’ chillingly distant and cold words to his son — evoke a great deal of emotion in meting out final dividends to those characters who deserve it.

My Thoughts

While I like the story of a perfect crime that goes astray as a whole, the sum of the script’s parts does leave some to be desired. While I like the build-up in the first act, it moves extremely slowly after the botched burglary that opens the film, the script meanders off and doesn’t re-ignite until the twist and Charles’ storyline begins. There’s also a great deal of extraneous characters that add nothing to the end story and ultimately serve to only bulk down the story’s pace, including Andy’s gratingly-religious sister and his wife’s sudden sidetrip into shoplifting. There are also a number of repeated scenes told from different characters’ points of view that add little if anything in their second use.

There could be a great deal more concisenesses, and at 119 pages and 150-plus scenes, some trimming should be utilized. As this was not the final draft (director Fiona MacKenzie is listed on the film’s IMDB.com listing as having gained a screenwriting credit), I hold out hope that this has been changed for the better.

What gives room to trim away could leave some room for further story that could expand some of the movies’ central characters: What is the background of the younger Hanson and Tillinger’s kinship and what caused Andy to turn to Tillinger for help in his schemer What is Tillinger’s reaction when he finds out that Andy devised this scheme against his father’s shop? Why is Andy in an affair with another man, which seemingly comes out of nowhere, for no apparent reason than to cause a second attempted robbery at the ending?

In the vein of “A Simple Plan,” this offers some good actors the chance to chomp at some vicious material and allows for some great visuals (like a scene in the third act where Hank surrounds himself with pictures of him in happier times, wondering what has happened to his life). Of all the actors, Cromwell has the best chance for critical praise of this work, his character goes through a great deal in this screenplay should he absolutely nail it, I’d bet that he gets
notice during awards season.

I’m not sure if there is an audience for this drama (which looks to be released in 2003’s third quarter, as of this writing), but Artisan has it work cut out for it; the names attached may not drive people into theaters. It’s a good twist on the genre of “the heist gone awry” and one of the independent pictures I’l be waiting in line for opening weekend. I’m looking forward to Cromwell, Gandolfini and Mulroney eating the scenery here. “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” is an original screenplay written by Kelly Masterson; this script version is not dated. While some news outlets have said that this project is based on a novel by Michael Ledwidge, it does not look to be according to the work’s Amazon.com listing.

Rating: B+
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