Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

What a quirky pair of brothers do Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke make. Both men have the boyish looks of former child stars who seem trapped in their pre-adolescent appeal. (Sorry, Ethan – this does apply to you.) Brought together in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, this pairing makes their characters’ sordid scheme all the more perverse.

Hoffman’s Andy, a real estate exec, has a secret life that could wear any working man to the bones. Andy is a tough-guy role that Hoffman can get his teeth into: an up-starter whose vulnerability channels aggression when needed. No model citizen, he drastically outwits his brother, Hank (Hawke), who vies to be the black sheep with every new character revelation.

In the film’s opening scene, in which Andy doggy-styles his wife, Gina (a very bare Marisa Tomei), the doughy Hoffman contrasts with the sleek-sexy Tomei. As this moment suggests, relationships won’t be about intimacy from here on. Andy cops a pose in the mirror as he roughs his bedmate, and we learn that close relations mean power and benefit for him.

On the other hand, for Gina – whose mind operates at the same sluggish level as her brother-in-law, Hank’s – sex is one of the few things within her minimal understanding. And hence, she also gives it to her hubby’s brother on the side. Turns out there’s Tomei for everybody.

With an eye on exploitation, Andy informs Hank about a surefire robbery scheme, and only after Hank commits to the job does he learn that the target is their parents’ jewelry store. In the tradition of noir heists, this one goes painfully wrong when their mother (Rosemary Harris) is fatally wounded during the crime.

Through this premise, newcomer screenwriter Kelly Masterson constructs a nifty exercise in narrative flexibility a la Kubrick’s The Killing, in which layers of story are revealed in flashback. The structure fashions a complex portrait of events that transpired within a discrete time frame.

After Hank and a cohort attempt the crime, the film’s narrative details the motivation and complications behind the failed robbery, the kinds of things the participants hide away from the others involved. Herein we learn that Hank takes to his sister-in-law, while Andy takes to heroin. The brothers’ scheme produces some of the most disturbing cinematic fare in some time. (Poor ol’ Andrew Sarris took to reviewing this film alongside No Country for Old Men and could only lament on the state of nihilism in the current cinema.) In the hands of Helmer Sidney Lumet, 83-years-old but with an eye sharper than ever, this progression is served a crisp visual style.

But things aren’t so smooth for those in front of the camera. Hoffman brings full energy to every scene, but is restrained by his role. He seems to focus only on channeling his character’s panic – winces, tears, and all – instead of psychologically exploring the nuances of such a part, which he has done so effectively in the past. Too often he goes for an operatic interpretation – an emotional breakdown in a car resorts to scenery chewing – and we can only guess that he struggles with his director’s expectations.

Hawke attempts a mentally unstable part – the kind that the natural actors Tim Robbins (in many films) and Mark Ruffalo (see You Can Count on Me) have nailed – but flounders while limited to a skin-deep nerviness. Working way outside of his range, Hawke serves up a one-dimensional lowlife, about whom we couldn’t care less.

But it’s never easy acting next to Albert Finney, who plays the wronged father out for revenge against his sons, and the performer’s pathos grounds the latter’s running time. An actor from Lumet’s generation, Finney seems to understand the delicate treatment that such a role needs and realizes a cloudy man who clears up for the task at hand. His growing rage ignites the film’s third act and proves to be the only performance worthy of Masterson’s script. Even with minimal time on screen, it’s Finney’s movie – and let’s hope we’ll see more of him.

Along with an informal commentary by Lumet, Hawke, and Hoffman, the DVD includes the documentary featurette, Directed by Lumet: How the Devil Was Made, which muses on the filmmaker’s distinct process. Those who have read his fascinating, insightful book, Making Movies, will find familiar territory discussed, such as Lumet’s method of rehearsal that felt thorough to both Hawke and Hoffman.

Nonetheless, it’s a pleasure hearing how the director crafted so many fine pictures and achieved the glossy look of Before the Devil. His pronouncement that Masterson’s script is really a melodrama, and not a crime thriller, as his producers described it, may help us understand how the misfired performances came about. He explains why he “pushed the material almost to artificiality” when directing – but, alas, Lumet’s disclaimer can’t justify his uneven results. Perhaps his story sense has slipped here, from what otherwise remains a virtuoso visual style.

RATING 5 / 10
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