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BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD

BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD

Will Hart, Will Hart

BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD

4 out of 4 stars

Rating: R For A Scene Of Strong Graphic Sexuality, Nudity, Violence, Drug Use and language.

The setup: Brothers (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke) plan to rob the jewelry store owned by their father (Albert Finney), then turn on each other.

What works: The family dynamics are skillfully rendered, the suspense is bruising and each man's performance is a revelation.

What doesn't: Hoffman's wife (Marisa Tomei) never achieves the same vitality as the male characters.

Great scene: Hoffman's emotional meltdown at the wheel of his car, raging at the wrong turns his life has taken, but never acknowledging his own responsibility.

Theater: Edina.

Movie review: Devilishly Good

  • Article by: Colin Covert
  • Star Tribune
  • November 15, 2007 - 3:57 PM

The title is derived from an Irish toast: May you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you're dead. But is it a blessing or a curse? Sidney Lumet's exceptional new crime saga is as full of entangled meanings as its name.

It opens with an armed robbery in a strip-mall jewelry store, evolves into a psychologically charged family drama and ends as Greek tragedy. Lumet (the director of "Network,"Serpico" and "Dog Day Afternoon" and already the recipient of a lifetime achievement Oscar) might be an old lion of 83, but he has a young Turk's killer instincts, deadly sharp reflexes and talent for telling structurally complex stories.

The film gives us the bloody, botched stickup early, then picks up the story a few days previous as the mastermind lays out his foolproof scheme. Philip Seymour Hoffman is the architect of the heist, a midlevel executive with a restless wife (Marisa Tomei) and a habit of dipping into the company till. Ethan Hawke is his younger brother, a divorced salesman way behind on his child-support payments.

Hoffman browbeats Hawke into raiding their parents' jewelry store as a quick fix for their financial troubles, but his real motives have as much to do with Oedipal revenge against their emotionally distant father (Albert Finney).

The story repeatedly builds to a climax, then pulls back to re-enter the cascading disasters from the viewpoint of a different character. The mosaic approach gives us competing perspectives on the action that heighten the suspense and enrich our understanding of the family conflicts that made the lethal blowup inevitable.

Lumet is a famously good actor's director, working here with a dream cast. Hoffman delivers a fearless, searing performance as a man with a huge ego and no self-esteem, so undermined by his suspicion that no one loves him that he concocts a Rube Goldberg trap to destroy himself.

Hawke is his equal in a less showy part. He plays a devious weakling who is easily manipulated by his older brother in face-to-face arguments, but underhanded enough to find the most vulnerable spot on Hoffman's back to sink the dagger of betrayal. Finney's character travels the furthest, from upstanding businessman to tormented victim to monster.

By the time the tale is done, you're shocked at the intergenerational depravity Kelly Masterson's script has dredged up. Yet each character's failings lock into the family's matrix of self-destruction like the spokes on a DNA helix. The film is a devastating parable about the sins of the fathers and the payback of the sons.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186

Colin Covertrating: R For A Scene Of Strong Graphic Sexuality, Nudity, Violence, Drug Use and language. • ccovert@startribune.com

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