Friday, October 26, 2007

"Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" -- * * * 1/2

A profound sense of dread permeates "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," Sidney Lumet's thoroughly gripping, relentlessly grim crime drama. Fifty years (!) after "12 Angry Men," 83-year-old Lumet has made one of his best movies with all the intensity, passion and edge of a young man. The end result is simultaneously exciting and unnerving all the way through, leaving you satisfyingly drained in its wake.

Audaciously opening with the image of Philip Seymour Hoffman fucking Marisa Tomei doggystyle (both actors completely, daringly nude), "Devil" centers on a robbery perpetrated by brothers Andy (Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke), and the whirlwind of shit-- and violence-- that falls upon them in the following days. Given that the film embraces a non-linear narrative (we see the robbery happen before we see the planning of it), it's not ruining much to reveal that the robbery in question is of a jewelry shop owned by Andy and Hank's parents (Albert Finney and Rosemary Harris). We see certain, particularly important scenes through more than one perspective "Rashomon"-style, but beyond that, I really don't want to say much else; this is the sort of film that's enjoyment hinges on the element of surprise and the nature of the narrative.

Despite my preference for his work in the upcoming "The Savages," Hoffman continues to prove here what a tremendous actor he is, and virtually making your jaw drop every time he's on screen. Though Andy is the payroll manager for a successful real estate firm and equipped with a gorgeous wife (Marisa Tomei), he has a wildly problematic and expensive secret life, including a substantial drug problem. Hoffman gets some really explosive moments in the third act, the kind he only touched upon in "Mission: Impossible 3" and "Punch-Drunk Love," and he always makes them feel earned and never like actor-ly bombast. I haven't seen "Charlie Wilson's War" yet (only read the script), but after his trio of performances this fall/winter, there should be little doubt in any filmgoer's mind that he is our finest actor (consistently) working today.

Hawke does the bumbling slacker like no other, and he's quite good as the closest thing we've got to a likable character. Established as a fuck-up and the "baby," Hank is a beaming, loving divorced father who nonetheless is irresponsible and three months behind in child support payments, as well as fucking his brother's wife. Hawke makes us feel his increasing distress, and beautifully sums up his character with two brief, beautifully played moments: (1) contemplating suicide after a seemingly unsolvable situation, Hank stares at a mountain of pills in his hand before sheepishly pouring them back into the bottle, and (2) exuding a brief, joyous smile late in the game when something he does actually goes okay.

Tomei is strong here in an underwritten role, but most talk about her will likely have to do with the three separate sequences in which she bares her breasts. To be fair, the word-of-mouth will be justified, as at 42-years-old, Tomei looks truly unbelievable, the epitome of what most men would kill to be married to.

Finney tears into his role with a vitality we rarely see from the frequently-coasting-on-his-own-presence actor. As a guy who's never been a very good father, and doesn't seem to have much desire to start now, he probably has the most complex and shifting role here, and even if we're not always entirely sure why, we feel for the guy.

Despite never resorting to any sort of flashy camera tricks (or even camera movement, if I remember correctly), Lumet directs with an urgency here that makes these characters' distress as gripping and horrifying as anything on display in movies today. From the discomfiting sound effects laid over the scene transitions to Carter Burwell's extremely effective stress-inducing score, we're never given a moment to settle or get comfortable. And that works to the film's benefit at every turn.

Kelly Masterson's screenplay (his first ever) deserves particularly special attention for its brilliant title alone (it's a completion of the phrase "May you be in heaven a half hour..."). But most impressively, he deftly balances the twisting storyline and effectively utilizes the perspective shifting among our three central characters without it ever feeling like a gimmick. Not to mention, the guy has an ear for deliciously perceptive dialogue. While there are many immensely quotable lines here, my favorites were subtle exchanges like Andy compliment-baiting his father, "I'm sorry I wasn't able to be the son you wanted," with Dad just sighing and replying, "You did the best you could." I'd say it's a safe bet this will be one of the nominees for Best Original Screenplay next February.

Saying intriguing things about familial ties, criminal integrity, and the dehumanizing effects of greed and desperation, the film's momentum keeps the audience's blood boiling and mind engaged for the duration. It should be a welcome respite to those who complain that there aren't enough movies made for adults anymore (though certainly not to those who prefer their adult fare uplifting). With an intriguingly fractured narrative and foreboding doom infusing every sequence, "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" is the kind of movie most filmmakers don't have the balls to make anymore.

"Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" opens today in New York and Los Angeles (one theater each), expands to 50+ theaters on November 2nd, and semi-nationwide on November 9th.

OSCAR POTENTIAL: While there are chances for Best Actor (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Supporting Actor (Ethan Hawke or Albert Finney), I think it's strongest chances are in the Best Original Screenplay and Best Original Score categories.


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