CAPSULE: Two brothers--both having screwed-up lives and both needing money--try a daring robbery close to home and soon find things going from bad to much, much worse. The film has some powerful drama with Philip Seymour Hoffman turning in a superb performance. But the tone is relentlessly downbeat. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
Sidney Lumet has been making very intelligent films since 12 ANGRY MEN half a century ago, and he still knows how to make a narrative powerful. BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RER DEAD is compelling. It just is not a very pleasant film to watch. Andy (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke) are two brothers, each of whom has bollixed up his life and each of whom now very desperately needs money. Andy is a well-paid executive with good taste and a bad drug habit. Hank is more a misfit. He has an ex-wife who detests him because he cannot pay child support and cannot even afford the money to pay for his daughter's field trip to see "The Lion King". But Andy has planned out a neat little "victimless" crime that the two can commit to solve their money problems. Nobody gets hurt in his plan. Only the insurance company is out any money and that is the only harm. In the next few days their lives will be ripped apart as their plan go horrifyingly wrong.
The plotting of this film would nicely fit a Coen Brothers film. In fact, there are more than a few parallels to FARGO. But the Coen Brothers would play the story more for interesting twists, instead of with this degree of drama. This film goes more into the emotion of the situation and how the two brothers got to their current state. The third major character in the drama is their inflexible father Charles, played by Albert Finney. There is real tension between Charles and his two sons. When Andy and Charles face and confront each other the scene has definite Arthur Miller overtones. Each character of the three men is highly flawed and watching them drag each other down is a slow-motion train wreck.
In this film Sidney Lumet is experimenting with his style. I do not remember his ever having nudity in a film before. This time he shows us a great deal of flesh starting with the very first scene of the film and delivered handsomely by Marisa Tomei. Sadly for such a good actress, the nudity is perhaps her strongest contribution to this film. Her role shows off the outside of her body much more than the acting talent lodged within. The real power performer of this film is Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose acting reaches an intensity we have not seen from him before. He has never been a particularly charismatic actor. In fact, part of his interest value as an actor is his lack of magnetism, his negative charm. But in this role that does not stop him from delivering a powerhouse performance that is the real center of the film. In addition to Lumet's other experiments, he and screenwriter Kelly Masterson jump around in time, sometimes telling us when the scene is taking place and occasionally intentionally leaving the viewer to guess. Curiously, in one scene from the right angle, I noticed that Philip Seymour Hoffman really does resemble Albert Finney. Later a character comments on how Andy looks a lot like his father. I had to agree. That brings me to the brief but nice character role for veteran actor Leonardo Cimino. You may not recognize the name, but the weasel-like face should be familiar like an old friend.
This film is something of a downer as things just keep getting worse and worse for characters who really probably do not deserve much better. But the performances are more of an attraction than the story. I rate BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0292963/
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2007 Mark R. Leeper