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Movie Review: Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

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I'm ashamed to admit how long it took me to finally catch Sidney Lumet's latest film, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. After all, Lumet is one of the true grandmasters of the craft (he directed his first significant film, 12 Angry Men, over fifty years ago!). What's more, the cast he brought together for Devil is absolutely top-notch: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Marisa Tomei, Albert Finney and Rosemary Harris. Worst of all, I'd only heard positive things about the film from others whose opinion I valued.

For weeks I resisted seeing it, though, before finally relenting this past weekend. I was wrong to wait so long. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is one of the best movies I've seen this year. That top-notch cast I mentioned earlier all give daring, inspired performances. As Andy, Philip Seymour Hoffman continues to affirm his rightful place as one of our finest actors. Andy is a venal, amoral drug addict and yet Hoffman imbues him with such life and energy that you almost want to see him get away with his many crimes.

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Ethan Hawke is an actor that I've always felt ambivalent about--he really needs the right role in order to shine. In Devil he has it. Playing Andy's kid brother, Hawke gives his rawest performance in years. Though often cast as a strong lead, he's really better as a complementary player. What he can do amazingly well is convey weakness and indecision and in Devil he gets many opportunities. Like Hoffman, he's basically a dirtbag but--also like Hoffman--you root for him to find a way out of the darkness he's created for himself.

As Andy's wife, Marisa Tomei is exquisite as a lonely, sexually-compulsive housewife. Lumet's steady hand must have drawn a great deal of trust from her since she spends a good portion of the film naked and in bed with someone. Tomei has never been the sort of actress who freely drops her clothes, but--it's an old canard but it's true in this case--the role really does call for it and she delivers without a hint of hesitation. Finney and Harris have smaller, if no less significant roles, and both are as solid as would be expected.

You may have noticed I haven't spent any time discussing what the movie is actually about. That's intentional, because Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is so dependent on the unraveling of the plot that I'd hate to spoil it for you. In simplest terms, the film is about two brothers who plot a perfect crime and how that plan goes terribly awry. In many hands, this would be a rote thriller but Lumet and his actors imbue each moment with such dark gravity that the material is raised to that of a small masterpiece. Don't wait as long as I did to see it.

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Photos courtesy of THINKFilm