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Crime by default

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead


In Before the Devil Knows Youre Dead, Ethan Hawke and - Philip Seymour Hoffman are as screwed up as it gets.
  • In Before the Devil Knows Youre Dead, Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman are as screwed up as it gets.

*Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (R)
Kimball's Twin Peak
Honestly, these are awful people. But the characters of Before the Devil Knows You're Dead are so deliciously amoral that it's coolly insane fun to watch them implode. Really, it's not too often that you can so confidently revel in your superiority.

The thing is, these are authentic people, not cartoon villains or action-movie bad guys or any of those unpleasant but unreal "real people" who inhabit so many of our movies. They're just authentically fucked up, and pretty proud of it, it seems.

"You're a prick, Andy," his brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) tells him.

"I always was," Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) replies, with a shrug.

Then the brothers get on with their business, which is planning to rob the strip-mall jewelry store run by their own parents. Oh, and Hank also screws Andy's wife, Gina, behind Andy's back.

If there was a dog somewhere waiting to be kicked, these would be the guys to do it. They wouldn't necessarily enjoy it, maybe, but hey, it's there to be kicked, and someone's gotta step up.

That's the kind of sly, nasty casualness that takes Before the Devil Knows You're Dead into a realm of mopey genius. Director Sidney Lumet working from a clever first script by playwright-turned-screenwriter Kelly Masterson brings a gritty, indolent cool reminiscent of the Lumet films of the 1970s (Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico) but without the manic density. Crime isn't urgent here; it's slothful, dogged, a chore of the lazy and the dumb who do it not for the thrill, but out of a sheer lack of imagination. You need some dough? Sigh. Guess you'll have to steal it from somewhere. Add it to the daily to-do list.

Not bothering with fancy flourishes, Devil simply gives us the heist from multiple angles, as if to show how many different ways a couple of idiots can screw up a job. Andy's perspective lets us see the always- riveting Hoffman anew: Andy's a deep-in-debt broker who's both smart and stupid at the same time, and a man for whom, it seems, getting out of bed in the morning must be a trial.

Hank's perspective gives us a sneaky, shifty Hawke twitching his way through a role that's as meaty for an actor as it is meager for the character. Hank is a shell of a person, sleepwalking through life, and Hawke is pretty darn funny with it. Lastly, in the perspective of Hank and Andy's father, Charles (Albert Finney), we learn how royally his sons have, unbeknownst to him, messed things up.

The film does meander toward deeper tragedy than you might expect. But the tragedy is all in the unthinking carelessness of Hank and Andy for anything other than their own immediate self-interest and, maybe, not even that.

As crime thrillers go, this one is so laid-back that it all seems to happen by accident: Guns appear out of nowhere, just in time for someone to pull a trigger he shouldn't have pulled, just as someone who shouldn't be standing in the path of a bullet winds up there.

For all its seeming lethargy, though, Devil is madly suspenseful. You never can tell what kind of accident is going to happen next.

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