Before the Devil Knows You're Dead ****

Posted: November 02, 2007

A brazen tale of greed, lies, infidelity and murder, Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead also offers a wicked deconstruction of a dysfunctional clan: brothers at each other's throats; a father whose legacy is anger and betrayal; an unfaithful wife; a history of deceit. It's a horror show of hatred and festering psychic wounds.

So why is this movie so much fun?

Shot on the same New York City streets that provided the gritty backdrop for many of the 83-year-old director's best films (Prince of the City, Serpico, Q & A), and based on a terrific screenplay by Kelly Masterson, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead has energy and boldness to burn. Lumet makes hotshot indie directors a third his age look like fussy coots by comparison.

If his opening scene - with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Marisa Tomei in a vigorous bout of conjugation - doesn't pop your eyes wide open, then nothing will. More importantly, said scene hovers over the rest of the movie like a cackling ghost.

The title of Lumet's gleefully nasty melodrama comes from an old Irish toast - "May you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you're dead" - and Lumet begins his movie the way drinkers begin a night of boozing: with a hearty "Cheers!" before everything gets blotto.

If you've seen the trailers, or read anything about Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, then you already know one of its central twists - a head-spinning shocker that's practically Shakespearean in its skewed view of family and fraternity.

But I didn't know when I went to see the film, and I won't disclose it here. Better to revel - and gasp - at the awful surprise.

Suffice to say that the crazy-quilt events that play out in this crackling noir melodrama all spring from a botched jewelry heist - a little mom and pop mall store, where what was planned as an easy, "victimless" robbery goes bloodily awry.

Hoffman is Andy Hanson, a Manhattan real estate broker living beyond his means. He has a heroin habit, a wife with expensive tastes - Tomei's Gina - and a desperate sense that things are about to implode. He also has a loser of a younger brother, Hank (Ethan Hawke), a divorced dad who can't make the alimony payments, and who can't keep the promises he makes to his little girl.

So the brothers decide to hold up a jewelry store; they already know the layout, and know they can get away with enough cash and gems to solve their fiscal woes. Hank enlists a guy he knows from a bar, Bobby (Brian F. O'Byrne), to help out with the heist. First mistake.

Or second. The first was agreeing to his brother's scheme.

With Albert Finney - puffy, agitated, mean - as the brothers' father, and Rosemary Harris as their beloved mom, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead careens around New York, heading from bad to worse. But the performances just get better and better, and the story wilder and wilder.

Lumet's film is a stunner.


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.

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