At the tender age of 83, director Sidney Lumet
opens his latest film with a married couple going at it, doggy-style, in a bedroom full of mirrors. The wife is black-haired and thin while the husband is bulky and stares at the reflection as if it's his only moment of true triumph. In a recent interview, Lumet described the image as the man's idea of "classy"; an act of high-class privilege that the man can only hope to aspire to.
The man in question is Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman
), a pudgy volcano of a corporate hustler with a trophy wife. Gina (Marisa Tomei
) fits that role to a T as she spends Andy's money and enjoys mid-day quickies with Andy's brother Hank (Ethan Hawke
). Hank's money goes towards his ex-wife (a great Amy Ryan) and daughter while Andy's cash, when not with Gina, is spent on heroin in the très chic twentieth-floor apartment of his dealer in Manhattan. The boys need dough and their bourgeois office jobs aren't keeping it coming in. That's when Andy gets the idea. Article continues below
The plan is to rob a mom-and-pop jewelry store in the sanitized community of Westchester, New York. It's a simple early-morning job with a friend of Hank's (Brian F. O'Byrne) as gunman and Hank as the driver. The hitch: The mom and pop owners are Charles (Albert Finney
) and Nanette (Rosemary Harris), Hank and Andy's own parents. As you might expect, everything goes wholly haywire, with the gunman getting four shots in the chest while two bullets hit mom. Then it's up to pop to find the men responsible for the heist.
Lumet hasn't been this energetic and perceptive since The Verdict, released two-and-a-half decades ago. Who knew the old kook had it in him? As both an evocation of all the director's obsessions (corruption of American institutions, familial secrets) and a step towards more abstract storytelling, Before the Devil develops and portrays a world where blood has run black and greed has infiltrated our last vestige of hope: family. In fact, the most fascinating thing about first-time writer Kelly Masterson's throttling script is the lack of Americana in the demeanor and attitude of her upper-middle-class family. They act like members of a crime syndicate rather than brothers, fathers, and sons.
The minimalist sheen and cleanliness of the dealer's pad, the faux-fancy décor of Andy's apartment and the suburban-dungeon atmosphere of the local bar & grill become cultural benchmarks under Lumet's deft direction. Within these set-pieces are actions that wouldn't be out of place in the works of Aeschylus. The tailspin into the visceral fourth quarter could have been ludicrous if these performances weren't so well balanced between the believable and the grotesque. Hoffman's blazing work infests everything from Hawke's brilliantly weak baby brother to Finney's brooding father to Tomei's sensuous/reckless beauty. The members of this corroded American family don't want to hear anything honest, but they still yearn for that familial closeness, if only for the promise of some sort of comfort. It's all eerily evoked by one of Lumet's favorite images: the living room, empty with the loopy and chaotic sounds of childhood cartoons filling the space.