Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, Marisa Tomei
At the age of 83 and already a recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Oscar, director Sidney Lumet offers his finest film in years with "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," a crime drama that hits about as close to home as possible for such a film.
"Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" opens with the classic American sex, success, power and victory. In the shot, Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is taking his tropy wife, Gina (Marisa Tomei), from behind in a room filled with mirrors and a look on his face suggesting this just may be the pinnacle of achievement.
Hoffman's Andy has the everyday appearance of a high-powered broker with a six-figure income that isn't nearly enough to support his ever-increasing drug habit and attractive wife who has no problem spending his cash while fantasizing about moving permanently to Rio, the scene of their last great sex, while banging Andy's brother, Hank (Ethan Hawke), on the side.
Andy and Hank seem to have the sort of familial relationship that is based more upon rivalry than genetics, with Hank living on a lower, working class economic level with an ex-wife (Amy Ryan) and daughter who get most of his cash.
Both men are desperate for more dough, and Andy knows how to get it. Andy hatches a plot to rob a mom-and-pop jewelry store, a crime he calls a "victimless" crime. After all, Andy explains insurance will cover the loss, they won't use guns and the quiet Westchester, New York shopping center won't have any customers early in the morning.
Oh, and one other thing. The "mom-and-pop" jewelry store just happens to be run by Andy and Hank's mom (Rosemary Harris) and pop (Albert Finney).
Andy gets Hank to do the dirty work and, as he has throughout his life, Hank chickens out and pulls in a third party.
Of course, nothing goes as planned.
With "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," Lumet has created one of his most exciting and emotionally resonant films in quite a few years. From beginning to end, "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" literally bounces off the walls of domestic Americana while turning the fabric called family into not much more than silly putty.
"Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" is told in a non-chronological style that is initially effective, however, by the film's end the device has become an unnecessary distraction that, on more than one occasion, serves to more disrupt the film's continuity. While it's doubtful that anyone could do serious bonding with any of these characters through their multiple fatal flaws, it is mildly distracting to have the two brother's emotional and familial meltdown interrupted by the flashing back and forth.
Kelly Masterson's screenplay wonderfully blends a classic crime drama with a family melodrama in which each individual seems to bear at least a moderate degree of responsibility for the actions of the other. This is family disintegration at its most extreme, and yet such an extreme never becomes a farce in the fine hands of a cast that clearly understands how the varying storylines weave themselves together.
As Andy, Hoffman offers a performance that dances close to the edge so many times that it's nearly exhausting to simply sit there watching him and wondering what he will possibly do next. Hoffman vacillates between frightening rage to touching vulnerability to raw power with such ease that he makes us understand Andy even as he's doing the unimaginable.
Ethan Hawke, as Hank, is the opposite of Hoffman in portraying Hank as the easily influenced younger sibling who was clearly more favored as a child and, as a result, is more passive and less independent. Yet, again, Hawke masterfully displays Hank's vulnerability while never letting us forget that this is the same man currently having an affair with Gina.
As the trophy wife with a lover on the side, Marisa Tomei adds to the film's complexity by offering Gina up as a woman who wants it all...real love with a whole lot of cash. Insecure herself, Gina can't cope with an increasingly drug-addled, impotent husband and, thus, spends more time with Hank because he finds her "beautiful all the time." Tomei's performance is much quieter than that of the leads, and yet Tomei, even in silence, conveys great depth and emotion even when it is only with a touch, a look, a word, a simple act.
Albert Finney, much like Lumet, proves its never too late to turn in a damn fine performance as the husband who acknowledges he wasn't the best father while also believing in justice at any cost. Finney's performance is finely restrained and subtly disturbing long after the closing credits.
Despite the occasionally distracting chronology device, "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" is easily one of the most expertly designed films in 2007, from set design to costuming to architecture to the simple use of props. Virtually everything that fills the screen has meaning and purpose and drives home Lumet and Masterson's themes.
Only a masterful filmmaker could take a script such as "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," filled with unlikeable characters, challenging plot lines and a faithful to the plot ending, and turn it into a deeply involving, emotionally resonant and intellectually satisfying film.
After over 40 years of filmmaking, Sidney Lumet is still a master and, while not quite a masterpiece, "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" is one fantastic work of art.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic