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Friday, November 2, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

Impeccably crafted "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead"

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3.5 stars

"Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Marisa Tomei, Albert Finney, Rosemary Harris, Brian F. O'Byrne.

Directed by Sidney Lumet, from a screenplay by Kelly Masterson. 117 minutes. Rated R for a scene of strong graphic sexuality, nudity, violence, drug use and language. Egyptian.

Scheduled to begin shooting his next film in January, 83-year-old Sidney Lumet has made 44 films in his 50-year career, specializing in ethically complex morality tales like "Network," "The Verdict" and "Q&A," to name just a few. His latest, "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," yields all the dividends of a distinguished career. Watching this impeccably crafted melodrama, you feel grateful for a veteran filmmaker who serves a gripping story with a confident efficiency that's lean, mean and focused like a laser.

Now working exclusively with digital video and clearly relishing the medium's liberating convenience, Lumet makes even the trickiest scene look easy. He's on familiar ground here, with a New York tale of recklessness and ruin, but he can still rattle our nerves with consummate skill, making all the right decisions with a story about brothers destined by fate to make all the wrong ones.

A bluntly resonant opening scene sets up one of many dominoes that will fall as the time-shifting plot (by first-time screenwriter Kelly Masterson) unfolds. Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) — a real-estate accountant whose shady ethics are returning to haunt him — grunts through passionless sex with his wife, Gina (Marisa Tomei). It's soon revealed that she's having an affair with Andy's younger brother, Hank (Ethan Hawke), a divorced and aimless ne'er-do-well who, like Andy, is locked in a vice-grip of financial desperation.

Neither of these pathetic siblings is equipped to execute a plan that Andy thinks is foolproof: Hank will rob the strip-mall jewelry story owned by their parents (Albert Finney, Rosemary Harris), nobody will get hurt, and insurance will cover the losses. It all goes fatally wrong when Hank's accomplice (Brian F. O'Byrne) gets trigger-happy. But only when Lumet replays events from increasingly revealing perspectives do we realize the full extent of this deep-rooted family tragedy — one that echoes themes of moral corruption that dominate the director's finest work.

Further synopsis would only spoil the intensity of this unpredictable scenario, which corkscrews into blackmail, murder and deception so bleak that the film's Oedipal underpinnings feel like temporary relief from the brothers' self-inflicted chaos. And while Hoffman and Hawke excel in roles that are given just enough latitude to remain marginally sympathetic, Lumet is equally attentive to supporting players (including Amy Ryan and Michael Shannon), all of whom add vital details to the story's inevitable downward spiral.

Taking its title from the old Irish toast that begins with "May you be in heaven half an hour ... " — "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" arrives at a gut-wrenching paternal decision of Shakespearean magnitude. You'll find precious little comfort here, but poetic justice has rarely been so devastatingly served.

Jeff Shannon: j.sh@verizon.net

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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