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At 83, Sidney Lumet has made perhaps his most incisive film yet with “Before the Devil Knows You're Dead,” a relentless morality play that cuts deep and doesn't hesitate to turn the knife.
Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke star as Andy and Hank Hanson, two brothers whose lives seem to be heading for the toilet. Weak and shiftless, Hank (Hawke) always looks strung-out, struggles to hold down an office job and has fallen woefully behind on child support and school tuition expenses he owes his livid ex-wife (Amy Ryan). Meanwhile, older brother Andy (Hoffman) works as an accountant and engages in a cornucopia of white collar vice — he's skimming money from his firm to support his coke and heroin habit and transsexual love affair, and to top it off, Hank is secretly boinking his wife (played vacantly and mostly topless by an always compelling Marisa Tomei).
From the muck, both brothers develop a desperate need for redemption that crystallizes into two fixations: Hank's desire to transcend his deadbeat-dadness and scratch together enough money to send his beloved daughter to see “The Lion King,” and Andy's belief that a rare spark of marital passion in Rio could be a long-term solution to a sexless marriage.
To right their depraved ships, Andy devises a “victimless” crime and conscripts, or rather bullies, Hank into participating. The brothers will rob their parents' suburban jewelry store. They'll make off with a cool $60,000 in loot, while insurance will reimburse their parents' loss.
Everything, of course, goes horribly wrong. All in the first 10 minutes. Kelly Masterson's debut screenplay plays with time, spinning the film into the past and future, but always returning to the day of the robbery, like the guilty returning to the scene of the crime. Plot pieces gradually emerge. The Hanson patriarch, played with great heft by Albert Finney, becomes fixated on getting to the bottom of the robbery, and there's drama there. But for the most part, this is a film about lives crumbling.
It's a testament to Lumet's skill as a filmmaker that, even for all Andy's cold hubris and Hank's feebleness, once the brothers start to come apart, we sympathize with them. Which is largely a testament to the skill of Hawke and Hoffman at depicted guilt and fear with such torturous accuracy.
Lumet also manages to keep a tight rein on the proceedings. His scenes are focused and almost painfully direct, full of harsh white light and often ending with full blackouts.
Be warned, though, this isn't a picnic at the Cineplex. No one escapes unscathed. There are times when the rawness of it all overpowers, but who says everything has to be so uplifting?— Lindsey Millar