At 83, director scores with bristling film noir

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, November 1, 2007 5:01pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

A lot of people have been calling “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” a return to form for 83-year-old director Sidney Lumet, a filmmaker with a long, sometimes storied past (“Twelve Angry Men,” “Serpico,” “Dog Day Afternoon”).

I thought Lumet returned to form with his previous film, “Find Me Guilty,” a vigorous if somewhat amoral courtroom comedy-drama. But without a doubt, “Before the Devil” is a spirited outing. Imagine a film noir written by Arthur Miller — but with plenty of modern nudity and violence — and you’ve got a sense of this movie.

The script, by Kelly Masterson, is one of those exploded-clock things that hop back and forth in time around a central event. That event is a botched jewelry-store robbery in a nondescript suburban mall.

The robbery has been planned, insofar as you could call it “planned,” by a pathetic, addicted, indebted broker named Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman at his most unpleasant). He’s enlisted his loser younger brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) to actually carry out the crime; Andy gets an even more hapless buddy (Brian F. O’Byrne) to help.

Making things much more awful is that the jewelry store is owned by the brothers’ parents (Albert Finney and Rosemary Harris). That’s how Andy thought the crime would be “victimless”: He knew nobody would resist, and that his parents’ assets were covered by insurance.

But you saw the word “botched” up there, right? The repercussions of the break-in send out ripples that drown everybody nearby.

Lumet has corralled a blue-ribbon batch of acting talent, which is one reason the scenes bristle with excitement as they flit by, even if they’re out of order. Marisa Tomei shines in a few scenes as Andy’s wife, Amy Ryan (“Gone Baby Gone”) is abrasive as Hank’s fed-up ex, and Michael Shannon (the lead creep from “Bug”) is dead-on as a thug.

One question: Why is the movie told explicitly from the point of view of only its male characters? Were the women not sufficiently interesting?

There’s a real pleasure in watching the movie reveal its disasters, and in the non-chronological way we learn pieces of vital information. This seems at least as much the achievement of first-time screenwriter Masterson as of Lumet.

On the other hand, if you like watching attractive people doing admirable things, you’re definitely out of luck here. “Before the Devil” is like seeing sharks tear at each other, except sharks can be excused for never having consciences to begin with.

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