Sunday, March 21, 2010

Archive: 'Before The Devil Knows You're Dead"

Movie Review
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007)

"May you be in heaven half an hour...Before the devil knows you're dead."

The opening scene is of Philip Seymour Hoffman's character having rough vacation sex with his younger wife, played by Marisa Tomei. This isn't the only dirty thing you'll witness people doing throughout the course of this wrenching drama. "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" is the latest film from 83-year-old director Sidney Lumet about a family's life torn into shambles after a jewel heist gone horribly awry. It's remarkable that after receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award three years ago, Lumet is still at the top of his game and making worthy movies such as this.

Hank (Ethan Hawke) and Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) are brothers, although you wouldn't know it from looking at them; you would have to observe the way they interact because you get the feeling they've shared some history together. Andy is a payroll executive at a Manhattan real estate office who acts tough with every hair slicked back into place; however, the marriage with his wife, Gina (Marisa Tomei), only has the appearance of being stable, and he has a bad drug addiction that leaves him strapped for cash. Hank works at the same office with Andy and is rundown, in a divorce, distant from his daughter, and in need of money to pay for child-support.

It's Andy who comes up with the plan to rob a jewelry store. The place he has in mind is a small mom and pop shop in the suburbs; the catch is that its their mom (Rosemary Harris) and pop (Albert Finney). Andy assigns Hank to do the job alone, and he figures if it's done without a gun on a slow Saturday morning with no customers around, it's a victimless crime that insurance can cover. Well, without giving too much away, everything goes wrong. It's from here that the movie begins to ring with emotional resonance and intensity that is absolutely devastating.

The plot isn't linear and is told in fractured segments, and what's so ingenious about this construction is how richly layered it is. After the opening scene, it cuts to "The Day of the Robbery," and then from there, it flashes back to different perspectives, jumps forward, and then doubles back again, all within the course of one week. This method comes from debut screenwriter Kelly Masterson, and it allows for each individual scene to be reconstructed, revealing more each time, and melding each piece together to create a startling cohesive whole.

The aftermath of the robbery only gets more complicated when Hank and Andy's father starts investigating for himself. It also doesn't help that Andy's wife is seeing Hank every Thursday. It's painfully fascinating to watch this family slowly inch their way to a shatteringly climactic disaster. We're not watching criminals on the screen, but rather, ordinary men driven to the point of committing criminal acts. These are people who turn to the worst possible means to resolve their problems. And all you can do is sit back and just watch the shockingly bad behavior unfold and await its consequences. Through it all, the characters feel a sense of remorse and grief, and yet, keep on with their familiar ways.

The movie's strength is in the demanding performance from Hoffman, who has key moments of loud outrage and silent despair. He taps into his dark side and is searing as a man who oozes charm but is then pushed to the edge; his gruesome aggressiveness gives him frightening strength in the end. His co-star, Hawke, is in the shadow as the hurt, younger sibling dragged under the corrupt current of his persuasive older brother. These two actors work together to make a strange connection of twisted trust between conflicted brothers.

"Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" is a movie you have to experience for yourself to understand. It's one to discover through the intricate way its told, and simply reading about it doesn't do the movie justice. It's a juicy bite into a thought-provoking melodrama that dives deep into a progressively escalating tragedy of loss that vibrates with energy.

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