Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
Directed by Sidney Lumet

Written by Kelly Masterson

Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney


Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Two brothers, both in need of money, plan the perfect jewelry heist. They'll rob their parents' little jewelry store at a strip mall in Westchester County, on a slow Saturday morning while an elderly friend of their parents is watching the place, fence the jewels, their parents will collect from the insurance company, no one gets hurt, everyone gets rich.

One brother, Andy, the smarter one who thought it all up, is played by Philip Seymour Hoffman; the weaker one, Hank, is played by Ethan Hawke. Andy has a big drug habit and has been skimming from his firm; the IRS is on its way to audit him. Meanwhile Hank is three months behind in his child support with no way to pay it. One critic described him this way: If you gave him a quarter to pay the meter, he'd come back with a parking ticket and a lot of pathetic excuses.

All of which you find out in the first ten minutes of the film, directed by the great Sidney Lumet (age 83), who shows why he can still do anything he wants. The burden of the film comes after the robbery, and it is brutal. I'm not going to give anything away by saying that each brother acts according to his own personality, which gets them in deeper and deeper as the film goes along.

Hoffman and Hawke obviously do not look like brothers, but they play so brilliantly together that we simply accept it. Hoffman has immersed himself in Andy; whatever we see him do, it is Andy - and the film opens with his wife and him enjoying sex in Rio de Janeiro - big butt and all.

What's particularly interesting about "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" is the bold way in which Lumet and his scriptwriter, Kelly Masterson, have organized the film. It begins with the robbery, but then cuts back and forth - three days earlier, another view of the robbery, then two days later, and so forth. Each fragment adds to the complexity of the film; and each one has more to reveal about where the two brothers are at the moment, and each one has something to say about every character in the film, including, I think, a somewhat miscast Albert Finney, playing the father of the boys. And yet I see where Lumet cast him, because he once was a crook like his sons, and so he reveals where each of them has come from. In any case, the film is so perfect in its structure - and when did you see a film that was perfect - that you can just respond to it as it comes past you in your seat. I loved this film, for that reason and for its perfect casting.

There is a small part in "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" for a 47th-street diamond cutter and fence; I had to look it up because the actor has the most unforgettable face I've seen in years. It turns out he is an Italian character actor named Leonardo Cimino; I guarantee you will never get him out of your mind. This film is a rare example of a master at the top of his form.