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before-the-devil-knows-youre-deadAmong oxymorons in common usage, one of the most popular is “victimless crime.” It would seem that if an act is criminal in nature, it must have a victim. If there is no victim, then the act cannot be a crime in any real sense.

When the phrase is used, a larger point is being made, as the speaker means to imply something arcane and puritanical about a certain “offense” being considered an offense at all. Generally, the concept involves an agent who solicits his own poison, as it were—a person who has a taste for something that society might deem dangerous or corrupting, but whose choices are reflexive in consequence. No one is being hurt but the procurer, so it goes, and the purveyor is no more blameworthy for hurting him than is a restaurateur who serves fettuccine alfredo to an obese man with heart disease. With some conditions—the agent must have attained the age of reason and emancipation—the affair is considered merely a transaction, and in a free society we should be able to contract for our vices.

In short, a “victimless crime” is one that should be read out of the books. That is the argument.

Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead involves a different kind of victimless crime, but works off the same basic premise: if no one gets hurt, then no crime was committed. The title comes from the old Irish toast that winks at the supreme act of “getting away” with something for which you should stand in condemnation: “May you spend a half-hour in heaven before the Devil knows you’re dead.”

Brothers Hank and Andy Hanson (Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman) both have money troubles. Hank, weak and vacillating, is months behind on his child support, and his demonic ex-wife is threatening him; Andy, stone-faced and distant, has embezzled cash to feed his drug habit, and the IRS is on the way to investigate irregularities. So Andy suggests a scheme: Hank will hood himself and rob their parent’s suburban jewelry store. They know the ins and outs of the business—where the money and keys are kept; where the alarm is; when the Saturday clerk arrives. Hank will use a fake gun, so the threat will be an empty one, and the place is insured, so their parents will not lose anything. Truly, no one will get “hurt” except the faceless insurance company. Besides, how can you “steal” what you’d inherit anyway?

As will happen, things go wrong. Hank loses resolve and brings in a thug to rob the place, one who uses a real gun; further, the men’s mother (Rosemary Harris) opens the store instead of the regular clerk. Then Hank lets himself be seen by the thug’s girlfriend.

When plans go awry, not all can be controlled. People are hurt, in no uncertain terms, and to a degree that becomes nearly Grecian in scope (there are deaths enough to rival The Spanish Tragedy; the film could have used some restraint here). But most important is the original question: whether this scheme could ever have been victimless, and whether any act involving deceit for profit can not be a crime. For there are lies being told, not the least of which are lies to the self—a plot of personal destruction the complicity with which indicts those who participate in it. Helping someone to his end, which will undoubtedly set off a ring of repercussions, a wave of damaging consequences to wash over those indirectly, but foreseeably, affected, is not blameless.

There is also the question of motivations. Telling the story in backwards fashion (the Nolan brothers’ Memento has had lasting influence) reveals the resentments the men have against each other and against their father (Albert Finney). This scheme may never have been meant to be “painless.” Revenge for unrequited love and retaliation for unrealized dreams inspires the characters, who are shocked to find private turmoils have wrought public cataclysm.

We’re both the authors and stars of our own tragedies, yes, but it must be admitted that we play the supporting cast in the lives of others. Which suggests the “self-inflicted wound” is perhaps the greatest oxymoron of all.

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