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Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

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Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Veteran director Sidney Lumet sends Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke to Westchester for a botched robbery in this grim family crime drama scripted by playwright Kelly Masterson. "It's a hell of story," Lumet boasted at the press conference following the New York Film Festival screening, "it's masterfully plotted."
Sure, the scenario is dynamite: Hoffman plays a New York accountant with unwholesome habits and a faltering marriage to Gina (Marisa Tomei). In dire need of money, he pressures his baby brother Hank (Hawke) into an ill-conceived plan the way only an older sibling can. Hank has his own set of problems -- not least of all, alimony payments for a daughter who calls him a loser -- and agrees: they're going to rob their parents' suburban strip-mall jewelry store. They'll pick a day when mom (Rosemary Harris) and pop (Albert Finney) won't be working, and besides, it's all insured anyway. A victimless crime. Everybody wins, right?
After some graphic Hoffman-on-Tomei sex that you may wish you hadn't seen, the opening scenes of the film prove them wrong before we quite know what's going on. There are gunshots, blood is spilled, and the family is never going to be the same again. Told in elaborate flashbacks, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead keeps jumping back and forth to reveal dark secrets and slowly fill us in on blackmail, adultery, and worse.

But "masterful plotting" and fine acting can't make the story any more appetizing. The fragmented structure keeps us at a distance, and absolutely nobody in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is even remotely sympathetic. At the press conference, Lumet made it clear that he held none of his figures in high esteem, and the movie bears this out. Sooner or later, all of the characters turn out to be selfish bunglers at best, and cold-blooded murders at worst.

If Lumet intended to make a tragedy or even an effective melodrama, he would have done well to expend just a little bit of empathy. Tragedy shows a good person who makes a bad choice, but Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is a tale of just desserts. Though the ending is pitched at an intense level of drama, it doesn't register emotionally: the bastards had it coming anyway. The diamond-dealing crook who reveals the truth to Albert Finney sums up the movie's dire moral: "The world is an evil place, Charlie." If that's the case, why bother?
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead will be screening at the New York Film Festival on October 12 and 13. ThinkFilm will release the film on October 26, 2007.
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