There’s something painfully familiar about being pressured or persuaded. Perhaps to steal a candy bar, or to say something mean to someone else. You know what it’s like to feel compromised.

Brian Merlos
The sibling rivalry taken to felonious extremes. (PHOTO COURTESY OF THINKFILM)
Brian Merlos

But say an older sibling pushed you into robbing a store. He wouldn’t be involved directly. He’d just take credit for the idea and get half of what’s taken. To top it all off, the store happens to belong to your parents.

And if it all got fucked up?

Such is the premise of Sidney Lumet’s wickedly brilliant “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.” Assured, lean and forceful every minute on screen, “Devil” makes “Dog Day Afternoon” look optimistic. It’s a fierce domestic tragedy about pained people and the terrible things they do to get by.

Skeezy big bro Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman, “Capote”), at his most deceitful, convinces little brother Hank (Ethan Hawke, “Before Sunset”) to perform the aforementioned heist. Andy’s in a stunted marriage, and he needs extra money to make the possible escape that might save it. Hank is a dead-beat dad and divorcee looking for dough to help pay for his daughter’s private-school tuition and child support.

Both are at the end of their respective ropes and robbing their parents business seems easy enough. They’ve worked there. They think no will get hurt. But this is no heist caper, and the robbery goes shockingly wrong.

Completely mis-advertised as a kooky crime film, “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” is much, much more. The robbery is just the opening hook, and I strongly urge you to do yourself a favor – know no more than that when you go see it.

And do go see it. The film goes beyond the standards and comforts of conventional drama to force its way into your consciousness, a tragedy of the highest order. Maybe it’s an acquired taste, but to see such nasty characters pushed so far is rare. There are four leads that you hate but dare not ignore.

Andy’s older brother has a cruel streak (he calls his little brother a faggot and makes fun of his poverty) that makes Capote seem like a saint. Hoffman is at the top of his game here, and he’s only getting better at playing a sociopath. The baby in the family, Hawke’s Hank is a true fuck-up. We want to give him the benefit of the doubt, but when we see him spend all his money at the bar, we can’t feel sympathy for him. And he’s supposed to be the nice brother.

Albert Finney is the wild card. A bad father, not on speaking terms with his sons and self-involved, the man’s a sonuvabitch. His lust for vengeance after the robbery turns the film into a thrilling cat-and-mouse story.

Refreshingly character driven, “Devil” benefits from four leads that grab attention the moment they hit the screen. First-time screenwriter Kelly Masterson finds a real and despicable voice for his characters uncomfortable in its harsh clarity. And this is his first screenplay. At 83, Lumet (“12 Angry Men”) is pretty much his opposite, a veteran who nevertheless directs like an ace in his prime. An actor’s director, he stages each scene effectively in a non-linear manner that slinks back and forth in time. Your stomach knots tighter and tighter with no resolve in sight. The film will stay with you and leave you drained long after the final scene.

Simple in form, “Devil” is outstanding in execution. We all do things we don’t want to sometimes, but consequences are never this sensational. Seldom are people so vicious on film and yet feel so inescapably human. The movie of the year and probably many others, “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” is harrowingly true.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

At the State Theater


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