Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Runs in the Family

By the end of Sidney Lumet's acclaimed 2007 heist-gone-wrong thriller Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, one brother, a drug addict (Philip Seymour Hoffman), will have talked another brother, a deadbeat (Ethan Hawke), into robbing a jewelry store owned by their parents (Albert Finney and Rosemary Harris), one of whom will be shot while the other becomes consumed with justice to the point of killing one of his sons. For those who loathe family reunions, this is the film for you. It's also a movie for fans of theatrical acting and gritty 70s cinema, both still specialties of the 83-year-old Lumet, who like Altman in his remaining years shows no interest in retiring quietly. His style is as it's always been -- economical and no-frills, yet also showing more confidence and focus than he has in years.

Compelling on its own sleazy terms, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is a good showcase for its actors, who give hardly revelatory but efficient performances. Hawke has always been a strange case for me: an actor I dislike, yet who has been in some very good movies. It's fun seeing him play a dopey screwup here, and I laughed out loud at his introduction, where he flees the scene of the robbery while wearing a cheesy fake mustache. While Hawke sweats and spins, Hoffman provides a still center; and the latter has been made to physically resemble Finney. Some critics accused Finney of overemoting for a big Oscar moment, but he's good in smaller scenes too, as when he casually flirts with the ladies at the BMV while renewing his driver's license. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is nothing new; but it's just old enough that it feels almost new. I guess that's enough.

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