November 22, 2007

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Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (R)
Two brothers try to put a patch on an assortment of problems by committing a crime that creates one massive problem in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, a tense, tightly paced things-fall-apart story.

Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has all sorts of things falling apart. Though we first meet him — and his naked freckled bum — while he’s having rated-R sex with his wife Gina (Marisa Tomei), his marriage is no good and hasn’t been for a while. He’s been embezzling from his job and he’s a regular user of all sorts of substances — some which he injects while hanging out at the ultramodern pad of a barely clad rent boy drug dealer.

Things for Hank (Ethan Hawke) aren’t much better. He’s three months behind on his child support and has a horrible relationship with his ex-wife. His relationship with Andy’s wife, on the other hand, is pretty good — they meet once a week for sex at his apartment.

Andy needs money, Hank needs money and since Andy is a schemer and Hank is a loser (really, they’re both losers, just in different ways) Andy is able to convince Hank to rob a jewelry store. Which jewelry store, Hank asks. A mom and pop place, Andy replies.

Turns out Andy meant that literally.

Hank is sent to rob the jewelry store belonging to the brothers’ mom Nanette (Rosemary Harris) and their Charles (Albert Finney). But Hank is something of a coward, so he asks a friend, Bobby (Brian F. O’Byrne), to come along and help out. Bobby agrees and even decides to go into the store alone, rightly judging that Hank is a tangle of nerves and shakes. But things don’t go well for Bobby and, in one of the movie’s early scenes, we see him shot twice and sent tumbling through the shop’s front door.

The movie is told in flashbacks that jump us between the actions of the different characters before and after the robbery. Despite what could be a confusing storytelling device, the timeline of the action unfolds perfectly and allows small things to be revealed even after we know the major plot points of the story.

Of course, to make this work you’d need superb performances, and luckily this movie has them. Hoffman is fantastically evil, laughing and grinning as he lays out to his brother the details of the robbery of their parents’ store. As he slips deeper and deeper into irrevocable trouble, we never see a second of actual remorse, just a frustration that his plans aren’t unfolding as he’d hoped.

Hawke, likewise, is almost unrecognizable as a man whose face is coated in a near-constant layer of flop sweat. He is a loser and weak-willed. He’s reluctant to participate in the robbery but not remotely strong enough to stop it. He seems like his preferred state would be with his head firmly planted in a hole, comfortably removed from all knowledge of the world. His relationship with Gina seems more desperate than loving — and certainly his puppy-like adorations are not returned.

Tomei plays Gina as a woman who also has her hands over her eyes. She is seems to have willed herself stupid to prevent herself from seeing and knowing the facts of her life, like who her husband really is.

Good as those actors are, the Oscar nomination performance here belongs to Finney. He is both consumed with vengeance about the robbery and filled with disappointment about his sons. The intensity of his performance grows as we see him realize how these two feelings intersect.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is a surprising movie for how it serves up both sex and violence in its opening scenes and then unrolls a story of betrayal, despair and deeply evil behavior with no hope for some Hollywood ending of redemption. B+

Rated R for a scene of strong graphic sexuality, nudity, violence, drug use and language. Directed by Sidney Lumet and written by Kelly Masterson, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is an hour and 57 minutes long and is distributed in limited release by ThinkFilm.