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Family plots

Sidney Lumet shows how it’s done
By PETER KEOUGH  |  November 7, 2007
3.5 3.5 Stars


VIDEO: The trailer for Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead  | Directed by Sidney Lumet | Written by Kelly Masterson | with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Marisa Tomei, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, Rosemary Harris, Aleksa Palladino, Brian F. O’byrne, Michael Shannon, and Amy Ryan | THINKfilm | 117 minutes
Sidney Lumet may be 83, but his new film makes Quentin Tarantino and even the Coen Brothers look geriatric. Tarantino’s ostentatious violence, movie allusions, and general depravity aside, he impresses most with his skill at diabolically skewing chronology and narrative. Not known for his adventurousness in storytelling, Lumet outdoes Tarantino in his 45th film, constructing a Rubik’s cube of intersecting, backtracking, and reverse-angled story lines. Moreover, he and his actors have created characters of monumental moral feebleness and ineffectual rapacity who are engaged in folly as old as the family unit. So why, like Tarantino’s cleverest work, does Before the Devil Know You’re Dead seem to run a little empty?

Maybe it’s an underlying, halfhearted misogyny, if not misanthropy. Absurdity and debasement enter with the first images. Lumet thrusts you in medias res; Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is doing his share of thrusting also, as in an alarmingly raw scene he goes at it at length and doggy-style with his dim but decorative wife, Gina (Marisa Tomei).

Andy is not only randy but hard up for cash, since his cooking of the books to fund his coke-snorting high style is about to undergo IRS scrutiny. His sniveling little brother, Hank (Ethan Hawke), meanwhile, is being whipped by his own ex-wife, Martha (Amy Ryan), for child-support payments. (Hank’s precociously mean-spirited daughter also holds him in contempt, calling him a “loser.”) Both need immediate liquid assets, and Andy has a plan to rob a mom-and-pop jewelry store in a suburban mall. But Lumet’s sensibility is no less twisted than Tarantino’s or the Coens’, since the mom-and-pop shop is run by the brothers’ own mom (Rosemary Harris) and pop (Albert Finney).

As we’ve learned from Greek tragedy, such schemes seldom go well. The inevitable outcome, however, unfolds with gasp-inducing surprises as Lumet (and screenwriter Kelly Masterson in a daunting debut) halt the tale at key moments, rewind a bit, and attack the same scene again from another character’s angle, each reprise disclosing further depths of fecklessness, ignominy, and bad luck.

In part, the superb performances help distinguish this from an exquisite Sadean exercise like Blood Simple. No matter how irredeemable and pathetic the behavior of their characters might be, Hoffman and Hawke evoke a squirming recognition and empathy. Even the brief turns by Aleksa Palladino, Brian F. O’Byrne, and Michael Shannon as low-life functionaries bristle with grit and dignity.

Mostly, though, Lumet draws on dramatic rhythms and truths that were already old hat with Sophocles. True, the women in Devil are femme fatales in one form or another (some involving firearms), and the men are all deluded dupes. But is that misogyny and misanthropy or an Olympian recognition of irony and fate? In Oedipus, the son learns that he has killed his father and married his mother, but what if instead the father . . . The climax of Devil unrolls with the inescapable majesty of a building collapse, but most of the pleasure lies in watching Lumet set the pieces up only to knock them down.

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