‘Dead,’ but not forgotten

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When I’m 83, I’ll be happy if I can put my pants on the right way. But Sidney Lumet, in his eighth deacade has, with “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” directed not only what should contend with the year’s best, but should also be another shining jewel in his already dazzling cinematic crown.

Granted, he put out some really crap-tacular works as well (was there ever a more aptly titled film as “The Wiz?” Or how about Melanie Griffith delving into the seedy underbelly of Hasidic Judaism in “A Stranger Among Us?”). But when it comes to the crime/legal drama, Lumet’s works are often considered paragons of genre — “The Verdict,” “12 Angry Men,” “Prince of the City,” “Dog Day Afternoon.”

Brash, bold and precise, “BTDKYD” is an example of a master craftsman at work. And perhaps trusting they are in the hands of a legend, all the actors involved (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke and Marisa Tomei) have been coaxed into some of their finest work on screen. This is especially high praise for Hoffman, who has delivered two other compelling performances this year alone, with “Charlie Wilson’s War” and “The Savages.”

Given the fractured structure of its narrative, it would be difficult to go into detail about the fil’s plot without giving away too much, so I’ll keep it simple. Hawke and Hoffman play cash-strapped brothers (I know, but trust me, you will believe it when you see them together) who stage a robbery that they are convinced is a simple in-and-out heist.

We know it’s never that simple.

Lumet shows us the robbery-gone-awry early on, then backtracks through the interwoven threads that led up to and become unraveled after it.

Of course, the robbery is really a metaphor for loyalty, familial bonds and some of those dark corners of our psyche we’d rather not visit too often when we think about our own bloodline.

As the controlling – often bullying – big bro Andy, Hoffman provides another praiseworthy performance, but that is almost expected now. The real revelation here is presence of Hawke as Hank, Andy’s little bro who’s not above skipping a few child support payment for gambling. And, most notably, Tomei turns in an emotionally (and physically – goodness, is she a fine wine) naked performance. As Andy’s neglected wife, she slums for sex with his brother and finds herself caught in the need of Andy’s monetary handouts and Hank’s physical ones.

It certainly draws comparison to the similarly themed “No Country for Old Men,” which is winning all the love from critics, and is equally bleak in its outlook of human nature. That said, “BTDKYD” successfully stands on its own as a mesmerizing look at the devastating knee-jerk decisions that can be made by the morally bankrupt, and the downward pull that overwhelms once the first step on that dark road to hell is taken.

~ by usesoapfilm on January 16, 2008.

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