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Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Sidney Lumet has been making movies for fifty years - since 1957. You wouldn't know that from Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, the latest but probably not the last entry in his catalogue. With its intricate (but lucid) plotting and its taut performances by youngish actors at the top of their game, Before the Devil is a masterpiece wrought of guilt, hubris, incompetence, and vengeance - the stuff of Mr Lumet's most characteristic movies. The only surprise - and I'm reluctant to say even this much - is that more characters survive the action than I feared likely.

While I can't say very much about the story that Mr Lumet has to tell us, I can say a word about structure without, I hope, spoiling the suspense. Before the Devil falls into two parts of unequal length. In the first and longer part, Mr Lumet and his screenwriter, Kelly Masterson, widen the story's scope with a series of flashbacks that, taken collectively, explain the first big scene, which is the botched robbery of a jewelry store. The movie is so well made that we always feel that we know enough, even though we don't know very much. The botched robbery, for example, doesn't seem to need an explanation - a robbery is a robbery, and sometimes criminals screw up. That this is not just any old robbery is made clear in the flashbacks that follow, each one revealing a motive or a decision that will lead to the disaster. The curious thing is that, as the plot thickens, it also becomes more comprehensible, not less. In the end, the only flaw in the story's plausibility is that the victims didn't see this crime coming from miles away. But that complaint is unlikely to occur to anybody until the film is long over.

The second part of the movie begins when one of those victims, determined to find justice but having no idea of where the pursuit will lead, has an awful revelation. From then on, Before the Devil is a chase conducted with a kind of deadly leisure. There are plenty of surprises here, too, but none of them gets in the way of the final retribution - an act so powerfully satisfying that we don't object too much that Mr Lumet has left a few loose ends. Indeed, you might say that the climax vaporizes the loose ends, leaving the story as spic and span as the blinding blank screen at the finish.

It is customary to praise actors in pieces such as the one that you are reading, but I find that I can do no more than distribute universal praise, first of all because it is deserved but second of all because even to identify the roles that the various actors play is to hint at the nature of the tale. If most moviegoers will find that bits and pieces of the story have been leaked to them, it won't be thanks to me. The contrast between Ethan Hawke's infantile, hysterical insecurity and Philip Seymour Hoffman's toxic self-containment makes for riveting if uncomfortable viewing long before we know just how deep the doo-doo is here - and it is very deep. Albert Finney's performance may be the most explosively introverted of his career. And it doesn't seem very nice to call Marisa Tomei the ultimate semi-respectable slut, but that's what she is in this picture, and I suspect that hers is a performance that repeat viewers will find more and more interesting as the shock value of the story subsides. Rosemary Harris, Brķan F O'Byrne, Amy Ryan and Leonardo Cimino are all superb, but that's no surprise; I want to single out for special praise the debut performance of Blaine Horton, who manages a personification of sleasily sulky opportunism even though he seems to be nothing but lanky hair from the neck up. Like the man of the house in Raise the Red Lantern, Mr Horton's character is made formidable by keeping his face at a distance from the camera. The production is handsome and slightly more polished than one might expect from Mr Lumet, and in Carter Burwell he has found an ideal film score composer.

The French have a word for films like Before the Devil Knows You're Dead: incontournable. It translates, roughly, as "too amazing to miss." So don't miss it. (October 2007)

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