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Lumet’s ‘Devil’ more surface than tension

‘Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead’ scrapes suburbia’s surface and keeps scraping.

.”May you be in heaven a half hour before the Devil knows you’re dead” goes the old Irish blessing, the basis for the title of Hollywood legend Sidney Lumet’s latest film “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.”

“Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead”

Directed by: Sidney Lumet
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, Marisa Tomei
Rated: R
Showing at: Lagoon Cinema, 1320 Lagoon Ave., Minneapolis, (612) 825-6006

It’s appropriate seeing as deception and façade are the film’s MO, and everyone’s wearing a mask – the happy family, the loving couple, the successful accountant, the friendly brothers – to cover their misery, and push their demons behind them.

For all its obvious façades, the film spends a lot of time breaking them down, but never really says why these are so damaging in the first place. Older brother Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is in desperate need of cash. He’s been skimming off the top at his office and the Internal Revenue Service is coming for an audit. His younger brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) is also in financial trouble, with debt piling up and months of child support payments, which Andy sights as easy prey.

He talks Hank into pulling a robbery of what Andy calls a “mom-and-pop operation.” Mom and pop are taken literally – the brothers plan to hit up their parents’ small suburban jewelry store where both worked when they were growing up. It’s a victimless crime Andy claims. The jewelry store has insurance and won’t lose anything, the old lady who works by herself on Saturday morning can barely see, and they need the money.

Of course, no crimes are victimless, and inevitably, everything goes wrong. It’s a classic storyline, Andy failing because of his hubris and taking down everyone around him.

The movie is told in fragmented storylines following each man of the family, perhaps the only way to keep the viewer engaged. With not a sympathetic character among them, there’s no one to cheer for and no desire to see if any of it becomes any better. The story unfolds in overlapping pieces with more revealed each time, though by the end, they’re less like revelations and more like predictable plot points.

The film commands strong performances from all its actors, which could be why their selfish acts leave viewers with a queasy stomach. Hoffman’s portrayal of self-involved and egotistical Andy is dead on, wearing a calm face as his insides and his world fall apart through his own making. Hawke’s floppy hair and sunken eyes fit the part of pathetic baby brother, always in need of a rescue and incapable of solving his own problems.

The most repulsive part of “Before the Devil” is its treatment of women, with Marisa Tomei playing Gina, perhaps one of the most pathetic female characters in quite a long time. Women are only around to be protected, to nag or to lie quietly on their backs, legs open.

It’s glam-gritty – the worst of human actions paired with the posh modern city, which remains throughout the movie. It’s all a façade. Tomei’s beauty and breasts hide her incapable nature. Andy’s modern office, where he looks like the important businessman, is where all the money is skimmed from the books and drugs are hidden in the bookshelf. Much like its characters and scenery, the acting and the mechanics of the “Before the Devil” conceal a narrative that’s mostly contemptible. It’s gritty simply for the sake of being gritty.

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