I had a pretty good idea of the basic plot when I walked into the theatre. Two brothers (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke) plan to hold up a jewelry store in a strip mall...and the store is owned by THEIR PARENTS. I also knew it bounced around in time a little.
What I didn't expect was such an unrelenting look at a whole bunch of magnificently screwed-up people! WOW! I was left almost breathless by the new depths to which these folks could sink. It was a family tragedy, but there sure wasn't anything noble about these characters.
Hawke is the younger brother, and he works for the same company as his brother, but in a fairly lowly position, and he can barely make ends meet. He's way behind on his child support, and his daughter is growing more and more aggravated with him because he can't follow through on his promises to her to do things like fund her field trip to go see THE LION KING on Broadway. He appears to be ever so slighly dim-witted, although that may just be the drugs. He lives in a rough apartment and has some pretty rough friends.
Hoffman is the older brother, and while on the surface he may appear to be a little more together (he has a fairly responsible accounting position in the company)...we actually see as the movie progresses that he's in some seriously deep trouble. His marriage to Marisa Tomei is very much on the rocks, and the only good times they had recently were on vacation in South America. He believes he can start a new life down there, and keep his marriage going...but how to fund such a move? He's also into some pretty hefty drugs and even his larger salary can't fund it all.
It's his idea to rip-off the parents. ("Hey, they're insured.") Hawke finally buys into it, and they enter into the plot. It isn't spoiling much (because we see it so early in the film) to say that things don't exactly go smoothly! I won't say more, so you can see for yourself.
So why are these two guys SO screwed up? We see some of this as more scenes between the boys and their parents are revealed. In particular, we see their relationships with their father, Albert Finney. He's an old man now, but we get the idea that when he was younger, he was pretty tough old bird, difficult to please, lacking in affection and just a real poor father. Scenes with mother Rosemary Harris are fewer and less illuminating. It's really a story about how men in a family can screw each other up. BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD takes this idea to EXTREMES.
Towards the end, the actions of Hoffman in particular become almost monumentally deranged. We believe that he is doing what he's doing...but it's hard not to gasp in dismay. He is truly a completely broken and desparate man. All sympathy we might have had for him is gone...just like any sense of a moral compass he might have had. And Albert Finney arguably goes even one step more off the path of righteousness at the very end.
Anyway, I hope you get that this is not a happy, light film. But it is powerful, astonishingly well acted and written, and an absolute must-see. It's a riveting time at the theatre!!!
Hoffman is brilliant...pure and simple. His work here easily equals anything he's done before. I don't know if the film will be an Oscar contender, because it has such a small audience...but it should be and absolutely Hoffman should be up for Best Actor. Hawke is also very good...he is a complete coward and makes up both sympathize him and despise him. He could be up for Best Supporting Actor. Finney is always an imposing presence...and he's very good here. Again, I can't tell you too much without spoiling the plot line, but let's say he goes very convincingly from distraught to enraged. Marisa Tomei does another masterful performance as the woman who unknowingly is the downfall of the men in her life (in some ways...don't accuse me of being a chauvenist...I'm just saying that a lot of the choices the characters make revolve around trying to please her). She gives a brave performance (she spends a lot of time in the nude) and is her usual mixture of sultry and defenseless. If her role in IN THE BEDROOM got her a nomination (which she deserved) then I think she could have another one here.
Director Sidney Lumet may be getting on in years...but my goodness, he sure doesn't hesitate to step right into some very murky and unpleasant waters. His film is super specific, has a wonderful sense of place and he also gives his great cast the space they need to "do their stuff." No quick edits, or blitzkreig pacing when it doesn't suit. He believes we will be gripped by the story, and he's right.
This is not a film for the kids! Nor is it a film for someone looking for a glossy Hollywood film. It's pretty brutal and uncompromising. But I couldn't tear myself away, and the audience I saw it with was clearly as mesmerized as I was. GREAT stuff!!!