Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: The Academy Awards are Sunday, so we’re looking back on times when an actor was nominated for the wrong film—and on the performance they should have been nominated for that same year.
There’s no way Philip Seymour Hoffman can control the vein in his forehead, right? In Sidney Lumet’s pitch-black swan song Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, the actor seems to wield the crease bulging across his face as an emotional tool every bit as expressive as the brows, eyes, or mouth. For the morally dissipated white-collar crook Andy Hanson, this feature comes to resemble a tube clogged with rage that he can only let out in abrupt jags of verbal abuse, directed for the most part toward his younger brother, Hank (Ethan Hawke). Years of barely suppressed anger have hardened and narrowed his vein as effectively as any cholesterol, so that the feelings passing through it can only be released under a terrible and violent duress hinting at how deep his many resentments run. That goes for the sibling he bullies, but also the father (Albert Finney) with whom he is so bitterly estranged that he suspects they might not be related, and the wife (Marisa Tomei) he treats like a non-presence in their home.
The turgid vein gives the impression that Andy is under so much pressure that he’s liable to blow at any moment, which he is. His heroin habit—depicted in coolly detached scenes now unbearably sad, given the fate awaiting Hoffman—has led to chronic embezzlement at the office, which has led to an IRS audit, which has led to a plotted getaway trip to the extradition-free haven of Brazil, which has led to a need for lots of cash and quick. All of that leads to what should be a simple robbery at the jewelry store owned by the Hanson parents, at which both boys worked in their younger years and know like the back of their hand. But of course things go horribly awry. And then that leads to two deaths, which leads to the arrival of a vengeful brother-in-law (Michael Shannon, right before he broke big), which leads to another sloppy stickup job to get him paid off. Bad circumstances repeatedly compound themselves for Andy and Hank, compelled into joining his brother’s scheme by mounting child support payments, and can only be resolved by making another round of ill-advised decisions. Andy may be contemptible and Hank may be weak-willed, yet it’s still painful to watch them dig themselves deeper and deeper without anywhere to go, the non-chronological timeline arranging these events for maximum wallop.
Andy does not handle the sensation that his own life is closing in on him with anything like composure, and Hoffman conveys his gradual breakdown with the gusto of a room-filling Italian tenor. By this point, audiences knew that the actor could blow up with the best of them, the coarse consonants of his “SHUT UP” a work of art unto itself, and he scored an Oscar nomination that same year for the short-fused CIA op Gust Avrakotos in Charlie Wilson’s War. While his stint spent speaking Sorkinese went as well as could be hoped for—he’s Philip Seymour goddamned Hoffman, that’ll happen—it’s mostly just loud in comparison to the searing vitriol spewed in Lumet’s film. Andy’s fury burns in the bottom of his soul, consuming his entire being and leaving little more than ash behind. Even so, something about Hoffman draws us to him despite his character’s repugnant qualities, a magnetism he first exudes while going to town on Tomei in the opening scene. In an early sign of his poisonous self-regard, he’s looking at himself, but we can see what she sees in him once Lumet cuts to the pair interlocked in postcoital intimacy. We don’t know what a scoundrel he is just yet, only that he’s hard to resist. Through his descent into degradation, we’ll stick with him every step of the way.
Availability: Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead is currently streaming on Kanopy, Hoopla, Cinemax GO, and DirecTV. It’s also available to rent or purchase from Amazon, Google Play, Apple, YouTube, Fandango Now, Microsoft, and VUDU.