BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD directed by Sidney Lumet, written by Kelly Masterson, with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney and Marisa Tomei. A Mongrel Media release. 117 minutes. Opens Friday (November 16). Rating: NNNN
Great directors don't grow old gracefully; their stories get more and more reckless. The grace comes in the storytelling.
Sidney Lumet is 83 years old. He begins his new film with a nude scene that has Marisa Tomei bent over on all fours while Philip Seymour Hoffman administers his grunting, bulky self to her from behind. Both actors have Academy Awards.
At his peak in the 70s, Lumet brought a specific New York rage to the screen. But Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon and Network didn't dare the unblinking gaze he insists on in Before The Devil Knows You're Dead. The title refers to an old Irish toast - "May you land in heaven a full half hour"" - but it could easily speak to the real felt presence of evil among these characters. But, then, the brothers at the heart of this story don't believe in evil.
Hoffman plays Andy, a real estate accountant up to his neck in vice. He's been skimming money and he books regular appointments at a swank apartment where a fey boy in a silk robe shoots him up with heroin. Tomei's Gina, his gorgeous and insecure trophy wife, is sleeping with Andy's younger brother Hank (Ethan Hawke).
Both brothers need a fast fix of money, so Andy hatches a plan to rob a mom-and-pop jewellery store. But since the store belongs to their actual mom and pop, the plans are destined to go straight to hell.
Lumet often suffers in the rote comparison to fellow New Yorker Martin Scorsese, but it's a pointless assessment. Scorsese is a product of film school in the cinema-drunk 60s. Lumet started work in 50s theatre and television, when people talking sharp words to each other was still all you needed for great drama.
Before The Devil Knows You're Dead shows off some fancy corkscrew plotting, but at heart it's a fatalistic story of characters who talk and grasp their way to hell. Unlike Scorsese's rousing soundtracks, Lumet's recurring theme of eight bleak quarter-tones acts like a Greek chorus. And simply by casting Albert Finney as the father, he puts a grenade on the table.
"The world is an evil place, Charlie," a crooked jeweller warns Finney's character way too late in the game. "Some of us make money off that. Others get destroyed."
Could have been the synopsis.