Family Values, Style

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Will Hart / Thinkfilm

Philip Seymour Hoffman in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

It's possible that Philip Seymour Hoffman may finally have found perfect bliss. He has, of course, been terrific in films ranging from Capote to Mission Impossible 3, but the chance to play perfect evil — a delirious combination of hubris and stupidity — does not come along every day, even for protean performers like Hoffman. Yet here he is, deadly calm and dead-pan hilarious as Andy, the meanest man in the world, in what may be (slightly more arguably) the meanest movie in the world, Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead.

Andy is a drug addict. His wife (Marisa Tomei) is cuckolding him with his own brother (Ethan Hawke). He is in trouble at work — well-founded suspicions of embezzlement — and he is also the masterless mind behind a plan to rob a suburban jewelry store — which just happens to be owned by his very own parents (Albert Finney and Rosemary Harris). Needless to say, this not exactly capering caper goes murderously awry. We quickly understand that nothing good is going to come out of this mess for Andy. He, of course, does not catch the drift toward disaster. Coolly smiling, eerily calm almost to the end, he keeps manufacturing work-arounds that, naturally, continue to make matters worse for him. In particular, he misjudges the towering and implacable rage for vengeance that comes upon his father.

Finney cannot imagine that evil resides so close to home. And Andy cannot imagine that the source of his ultimate undoing is within the family. Stop to think of it and you realize that Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, which was written in poisoned ink by Kelly Masterson, is some kind of ultimate answer to the "family values" poppycock that has polluted our socio-political discussions for so many years. But Lumet doesn't give us a lot of time for philosophical musings. This is the 83-year-old director's 45th film, and like all the best of them (Serpico, Prince of the City, The Verdict) he just keeps driving his story along. Notoriously a fast director — the kind of guy who prefers getting things right on the first take — he is also, somewhat paradoxically, well known as an actor's director, which he surely is here. None of his performers have ever been better. Whatever impulse they might have to indicate that they might merely be playing dumb has been drained out of them by the director's driving pace.

And, I think, by his wintery eye. It would have been easy to turn this movie into a black comedy, but Lumet is not having any of that (indeed, he has not generally been at his best in overtly comic pieces). Neither is he a conscious moralist. He is, at heart, a melodramatist, pushing an intricate story along smartly, but never in a rushed or hasty manner. He is one of those blessed directors who first knows what he wants and then quickly recognizes when he's got it. His last movie, Find Me Guilty, a wild take on an endless Mafia trial, was under-praised and under-attended; I hope the same fate does not overtake Devil. It is, like quite a few Lumet pictures, rather small in scale, easy to overlook. But I think it is time to gather around a director who has embraced his octogenarian bleakness and sing his praises. Ultimately, I think you'll laugh a lot at what he has wrought here — but only well after the movie is over and the full scale of its perversity settles into your bones.