[Screen It]

(2007) (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke) (R)

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Drama: Things go horribly wrong when two brothers plot to rob a mom and pop jewelry store in the belief that it will be a victimless crime.
Andy (PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN) and Hank (ETHAN HAWKE) are brothers who are in need of money, but for different reasons. Younger sibling Hank owes money to his ex-wife, Martha (AMY RYAN), to pay for their daughter's schooling and such. Andy and his wife Gina (MARISA TOMEI) don't have kids, but he does have a secret and costly heroin addiction.

Accordingly, Andy convinces his brother to go along with what he believes is a perfect, victimless crime -- the knocking off of a small, mom and pop jewelry store where only the insurance company will end up losing out. Since Andy isn't terribly confident, however, he hires thug Bobby (BRIAN F. O'BYRNE) to carry out the actual robbery.

Things go wrong, however, when the unexpected woman behind the counter takes on the robber, resulting in both receiving fatal gunshot wounds. Complicating the matter is the fact that the mom and pop owners are actually the brothers' parents, Charles (ALBERT FINNEY) and Nanette (ROSEMARY HARRIS).

Realizing they must cover their tracks, the siblings scramble to make sure they've left no evidence, all while having to deal with the repercussions of the choices they've made.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
Just like a "perfect murder" is a major misnomer, the same can be said about so-called "victimless crimes." They're the kind where people break the law, but justify it by stating that no one is getting hurt from any interpretation of that definition. Yet, there's always a victim somewhere along the line, even if it's "just" the insurance company who must cover losses (and thus end up passing that on to their other customers).

While some wrongdoers might offer John Milton's defense of their actions that it's better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven, they should probably also consider the old Irish blessing that you may be in Heaven half an hour before the devil knows you're dead. All of that comes into play in Sidney Lumet's latest crime drama, "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," a twisty dramatic thriller that ends up being more about playing with story structure than exploring anything terribly deep.

It's the story of two brothers -- one being the confident alpha male, the other his subordinate of sorts -- who plot one of those victimless crimes. Of course, things go awry with their ma and pa jewelry store heist, and as they scramble to cover their bases, various personal and interpersonal issues come to light.

That's a fairly straightforward story, but Lumet -- working in cahoots with screenwriter Kelly Masterson or doing some script and/or post filming retrofitting on his own -- decides to give the tale the scrambled egg makeover. Accordingly, what was likely once a straightforward plot now twists and turns back upon itself and then some.

Not, to quote the old Seinfeld saying, that there's anything wrong with that. But if one's going to have their film jump back and forth through time as an alternative way of telling a tale (complete with onscreen titles indicating our current timely location), there had better be a good reason, or at least a cool payoff, for the temporal shenanigans.

Alas, that's not the case here. While some revelations come out in those twists and folds, and we get to return to previous scenes and view them from different angles and perspectives, little to none of that comes anywhere close to the brilliant way Quentin Tarantino played with the same in "Pulp Fiction." There's no "wow" or "omigosh" reaction, and one couldn't exactly be faulted for starting to think the approach perhaps might have been an editing room attempt to make the content feel more compelling than it really is.

Far more interesting than how the story unfolds and rewinds are the characters and their interaction. While Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke couldn't look any more different playing brothers, their sibling relationship (one domineering and bullying the other, with the latter getting back at him via an underhanded and under the sheets way) is believable. That's despite plot developments and character behavior that occasionally strain credibility, and often threaten to remove the viewer from the proceedings due to questioning what's occurring.

Throw in their tempestuous relationship with their father (Albert Finney) and things start to head toward Shakespearean levels of familial angst and tragedy. It doesn't quite get there, and occasionally teeters on the precipice of melodrama, but it's certainly never boring. Although their parts are cogs of the overall offering, Amy Ryan and Marisa Tomei don't have as much to offer, unless one counts the level of skin and sexuality the latter freely exhibits.

While I'm not sure if the film could have worked any better or would have had enough content to sustain a linear, A to Z approach, the non-linear one doesn't end up adding enough to justify its use. A decent but not great family drama tinged with criminal and other sordid behavior, "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" rates as a 5.5 out of 10.

Reviewed October 8, 2007 / Posted November 30, 2007

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