Jan 19, 2008

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007)

Ethan Hawke, Philip Seymour Hoffman

It may not be much of a stretch to say that this is Sidney Lumet's best film in 20 years (after Running on Empty), considering that he has done a string of mediocre films in the meantime, but I mean it as high praise. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is a crackerjack movie about a heist that typically goes wrong. Brothers Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke) Hanson, each up to their elbows in debt, plot to rob their own parents' jewelry store, in a supposedly quick and neat operation where they would make some quick cash, and their parents would get everything back with insurance, anyway.

The second scene in the film shows how the robbery goes horribly wrong, and then several times we continue to flash back to a few days prior to the robbery, and see how things unfold from a different character's point of view. At first, I was concerned about this broken narrative device (the last thing we need is another heist movie suffering from "Quentin Tarantino's Disease", which ripped off The Killing in the first place), but as we revisit certain moments, they have another layer of doom and deceit.

Sidney Lumet directs with his usual sense of mannered economy, delivering a terrific character-driven movie (a la Serpico or Dog Day Afternoon) featuring top-notch performances, in another scenario where lives blur horribly out of control. Ron Fortunato's ashen cinematography, and the simple framing, compliment the bleak, empty worlds of disappointment and broken dreams that all of the characters inhabit, not just the hard-luck brothers. Hoffman and Hawke are outstanding as the siblings whose idiotic plot spirals into tragedy. I was reminded of Hoffman's character in the superb, overlooked Owning Mahoney as an emotionally bankrupt numbers cruncher who thinks he can get away with a preposterous plan. And while I've always liked Ethan Hawke, I have even more respect for him as an actor now. One of the more introspective young stars of the "Gen X" pack in the early 90's, this performance as a sallow-cheeked fortysomething loser is a transformation. Albert Finney is fine as always as the father, yet for most red-blooded males, the true revelation of the movie would be Marisa Tomei, whose nude scenes are already making the rounds on the net. Her role as Gina, married to Andy but also screwing Hank on the side, is heartbreaking. Her bedroom scenes with either brother always have post-coital talk where either sibling promises to take her away from this crummy existence. And because we already know the disastrous outcome of the brothers' get-rich-quick plan, these moments are hardly erotic- even scenes of love are undercut with bitterness and sorrow.

Kelly Masterson's screenplay is an intricately written study of a family unit that was already doomed. I'm not sure I quite buy the ending, despite how credible it would seem with grief-stricken people going out of control, yet it still needed another scene or two to round things out, especially since the story is otherwise so beautifully detailed. At the age of 83, Sidney Lumet has made a terrific comeback film. Like those geriatric directors John Huston, Robert Altman and Clint Eastwood, who would try on different projects while they still have their breath, we can only wonder what he'll do next.

Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, Marisa Tomei

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