By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 2, 2007
Move aside, kids, and let the master show you how the big boys do it.
"Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," directed by Sidney Lumet, gives the lie to the adage that movies are a young man's game. At the spry age of 83, Lumet proves not only that he has the same touch for taut, crackling action he brought to such career-makers as "Dog Day Afternoon" and "Network," but that he has mastered postmodern storytelling.
He isn't just classic, he's hip.
Mark it well: "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" is no nostalgic throwback to the mini-golden age of the 1970s, when Lumet made his name. It's not a lean, realist drama but an unapologetically florid melodrama, full of bloody conflict and freighted filial dynamics. This is the story of two brothers, one strong, one weak, whose desperation and greed lead them down an increasingly depraved path. The way things work out has everything to do with the Oedipal drives and unresolved tensions that have come to define them.
Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Andy, the alpha bro, a high-living executive with a curvaceous wife (Marisa Tomei) and a strenuous desire to please her; Ethan Hawke is Hank, not nearly as successful, trying to keep his harridan of an ex-wife off his back and some kind of relationship with his daughter. Each of the men has money issues, which is why Andy approaches Hank with a plan. It's a simple plan that turns out to be not simple at all.
"Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," which was written by Kelly Masterson, threads viewers through Andy and Hank's tangled web, jumping back and forth in time, changing points of view, adding crucial bits of information with every chronological and perceptual leap. It's a crafty, sordid business, with facts coming to light that cast shades and shadows on every character; finally it's a gruesome study in moral decay, like a time-lapse chronicle of fruit going bad.
But what makes "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" such a riveting experience is Hoffman, who as the villain -- or at least biggest villain -- of the piece delivers a tour de force performance. Sweaty, overweight, always slightly flushed, it's hard to believe he could be described as seductive, but that's precisely what Andy is as he lures the passive Hank into his own twisted mind game. The scenes between the two of them, especially one in Andy's office when he seals the deal, are Shakespearean in their undercurrents and overtones (there's a reference to "King Lear" along the way in case anyone needs extra help), and Hoffman utterly masters every one of them. Hawke is just as assured, if not as showy, in the thankless role of the weaselly, callow Hank; he's a gracious Mr. Rat to Hoffman's far more devious and charismatic Mr. Toad.
Things get even more interesting when Albert Finney shows up as the guys' father, and the family dynamics shift into perversely high gear. (For her part, Tomei has little more to do than take her blouse off and look poutily bimbo-esque.) "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," which takes its title from an Irish toast wishing its recipients a speedy trip to heaven, gets almost too ugly to watch, as events unravel into a Grand Guignol of seedy comeuppance.
Filming with several high-definition digital video cameras, Lumet weaves in and out of the action, proving to be as adroit with emerging technology as he was with old-school celluloid. In addition to being a study in great acting, "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" is a study in great directing, and proof that it transcends eras, technology and fads. To borrow from another Irish toast, the road is still rising up to meet Sidney Lumet, and he's taking it with dazzling speed and assurance.
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (117 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema and the Fairfax Cinema Arts 6) is rated R for a scene of strong graphic sexuality, nudity, violence, drug use and profanity.