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Movie Review: "Before The Devil Knows You're Dead"

While we await the beginning of the Winter Meetings today, and perhaps some fruitful additions to the Cubs or trades, here's what I did last night... went to see "Before The Devil Knows You're Dead"; one review I saw told me that this title comes from an old Irish toast (that I had not heard before):

"May you have food and raiment, a soft pillow for your head; may you be 40 years in heaven, before the devil knows you're dead."

Quite a number of characters in this film would need every one of those 40 years. Though there are not many likeable people here, you wind up feeling sympathetic to at least some of them, because what happens tears apart an entire family. It's not so clear that this family was very close to begin with, but by the end of the film, several of them wind up dead... and beyond that, I shouldn't tell you more.

The basics of the plot are: Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Andy, an accountant at a business that's in trouble seemingly in part because of his own actions. He's also a drug addict who needs money. His brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) also needs money, because he's months behind on child support to his ex-wife (played with a real hard edge by Amy Ryan, who was so good as a lowlife mom in "Gone Baby Gone").

And so they hatch a plan to get some money. It involves a robbery that just can't go wrong. Andy has it all planned out, and they'll clear an easy $60,000 each, enough for Hank to clean up his debts and for Andy to run off to Rio with his wife Gina, played sexily by Marisa Tomei, although it's not really clear that Gina loves, cares or even wants to be with Andy, based on the fact that she's also sleeping with Hank.

(No, that's not a spoiler.)

Anyway, we wouldn't have much of a story here unless the robbery went wrong, and indeed it does. And if I tell you more, that would be a spoiler, and so I won't. Suffice to say that the boys' father Charles (Albert Finney) gets involved in investigating this crime and is shocked by what he finds. The hoary old phrase, "Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive", came to my mind in thinking about the multiple deceptions by virtually everyone in this film.

By the end six people are dead and there's a satisfying, but not really happy, ending.

It's told largely in flashback, though not through what you'd consider to be a "traditional" flashback technique. Instead, we see the botched robbery and then a series of flashbacks showing what led up to this occurring, from several different characters' viewpoints, with different time frames. It's a fascinating technique and not one you'd expect from an 83-year-old director (Sidney Lumet, who might get a DGA Award or even an Oscar nomination for this film).

Hoffman's great, as always; Hawke plays Hank perfectly, greasy and slimy; and Tomei slinks around the screen (amazing -- she's 43 years old), making you wonder what she's doing hanging around with this crowd.

This movie may have been overlooked because it's only in limited release, but if you have a chance, go see it.