Saturday, November 24, 2007

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

If the first scene of Sidney Lumet's breathtaking new film doesn't get you stirring in your seat, then check your pulse. Don't worry, I'll never tell what it is, but it sets one hell of a marvelous tone.

1970s film auteur, Lumet (Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network) brings us his best film in years. The kind that reels you in quick, and fights hard to keep you. Sneaky, sly Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) decides to bring his young brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) in on a crime caper. Andy plots to knock of a jewelry store, "Just a mom and pop kinda place," Andy assures the hesitate Hank. Little does Hank know that the jewelry store is none other than his actual mom and pop. Both the brothers need money, the store is insured and Andy promises no one will get hurt, so hey, why not?

It doesn't take long for things to go wrong, and for the whole family, including father Albert Finney, to be fatally affected.

The trick of the film is that Lumet, working with a brilliantly daring script from newcomer Kelly Masterson gives us the climax early. From then on, the events leading up to and after the robbery are seen from every major character's point of view. Lumet chooses an inspired path of nonlinear, narrative storytelling that echoes Tarantino.

Once tragedy strikes, the actors put on their A-games. Hoffman, so good, in well, everything, is mesmerizing as a corrupt sole who can't seem to please anyone, least of all himself. Two memorable scenes deserve all the praise Hoffman can get. I couldn't dare reveal them, but you have never seen just how shattering a decorative bowl of stones can be, until you see what Hoffman does with them. In a career full of accolades (including an Oscar for Capote), this is Hoffman's best work. So fierce with angst, yet so reserved with his guilt, you won’t be able to shake him.

Ethan Hawke, far better here than in his Oscar nominated role in Training Day, is equally as good. He gives Hank a uniquely aloof demeanor that asserts that he is in no way ready for the crime, let alone its aftermath. Hawke doesn't get tested much as an actor, but he strives here, reaching a career best performance that the Academy shouldn't dare turn its back on.

Finney and Marisa Tomei (as Hoffman's feisty wife) contribute to the film's power. But it is Lumet who is the real hero. At 83 years old, he is the most recent director to prove that he still has great films to make, age be damned. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is a remarkable throwback to Lumet's finest work. Surely one of the year’s best. A movie that will grab you before the opening credits and trouble you long after the closing credits are through. Just like the good ‘ol days. A

Listen to my podcast on Philip Seymour Hoffman

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