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Lumet’s talent alive in ‘Devil’

By Sam Potter

“Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead”ThinkFilmDirected by Sidney LumetWritten by Kelly Masterson

Starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, Rosemary Harris and Marisa Tomei

Rated R/117 minutesThree-and-a-half out of four stars

In an age when many young directors seem to equate narrative competence with flashy editing, bravura camera moves, pop culture aesthetics and cooler-than-thou dialogue, it’s comforting to know there is someone like Sidney Lumet still behind the camera. The guy hardly needs to make any more movies: the 83-year-old veteran has given the cinematic world some of its finest dramatic works, with classics such as “12 Angry Men,” “Serpico,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Network,” and “The Verdict” — all pillars of excellence at balancing suspense, moral ambiguity, action and humanity, while proving to be highly influential.

Like any true artist, Lumet needs to create, and we’re lucky he does. His latest film, “Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead,” is a gut-wrenching, dark morality tale in the classic film noir fashion. It’s a nerve-wracking downward spiral that, like a car accident or YouTube video of a nasty skateboard wipe out, is hard to watch but impossible to take one’s eyes off of.

The story is refreshingly lean and economical. Andy (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is a hard-working bookkeeper for a wealthy real estate investment firm. He has clawed his way up the ladder only to find himself still unsatisfied. He’s hard up for cash, and his relationship with his wife Gina (Marisa Tomei) has lost its luster. While vacationing in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the sparks start to rekindle. When they return from vacation, things return to the doldrums. Gina tells Andy she was happy in Rio and wishes they could live there. Desperate to acquiesce to her wish, Andy concocts a plan to rob his parents’ (Albert Finney and Rosemary Harris) jewelry store and enlists his washed-up younger brother, Hank (Ethan Hawke), to pull it off.

The plan seems easy enough: both brothers worked in the store as kids. They know the combinations, the codes to the security system, even who works what shift. No guns are to be involved, and it should be a clean sweep. When an accomplice’s actions cause everything to go wrong, it sets off a chain reaction that drags the brothers further and further into desperation.

Lumet’s movies have always featured rich characters, and this film is no exception. Andy and Hank are equally pathetic but in fascinatingly different ways. Andy, the older brother, has worked hard for everything in life. Not gifted with looks, he had to make up for it with tenacity, ferocity and dedication. Hoffman succeeds in striking the difficult balance of playing a man who in front of people is indestructible, yet crumbling and vulnerable in private. Andy’s a despicable person, yet in Hoffman’s hands, you still feel sorry for him. Ethan Hawke gives his finest performance to date of a bumbling loser who has a good heart yet lacks the requisite backbone to let his good points shine through. Albery Finney, brilliant as always, is heartbreaking as their hard-working father who is forced to face the fact that he might not have been that great of a dad after all.

Lumet directs the film with simplicity, grace and economy. No hip, flashy montages between scenes, no non sequiturs about some obscure comic book or kung fu movie — just an honest story about desperate people callous to the harm they could do to others. If there is any noticeable quirk in Lumet’s directorial style, it’s the deadpan way he stages some of his film’s most shocking moments. In places where some directors might attempt to evoke mood with music, editing or sound effect stabs, Lumet is confident enough in the story he’s telling to let it speak for itself.

If there is any weakness in the film, it’s that the plot is a bit far-fetched when compared to Lumet’s classics, but his assured direction and the believable performances overcome any hesitancy we might feel. Screenwriter Kelly Masterson employs a non-chronological structure, but it makes sense. He gives us a “bang” moment, then shows us the events and situations leading up to it. It’s not necessarily the end results that have the biggest impact. The joy in watching the film comes from seeing what makes these people tick, and what lead them to do the horrible things they did.

“Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead” might not quite reach the heights of Lumet’s greatest works, but it’s an undoubtedly solid and riveting piece of cinema.

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