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The Lower Depths

That sly old elf Sidney Lumet opens his new movie with a sexual encounter you might associate with a man spending his frustration on a compliant hooker. Bracket the thought, you’ll need it later. For now, this carnal exchange is as close to intimacy as New York real-estate executive Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) gets with his trophy wife, Gina (Marisa Tomei), whom he loves, in his own special way, and for whose sake (as well as his heroin habit) he’ll screw over the benighted collection of losers he calls family.

On more levels than one, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead might as well be called The Amateurs, for this moment of dubious connubial bliss is followed, or preceded — the movie mounts a deliciously crafty dance with time — by a botched robbery whose monetary stakes are pitifully low compared to the emotional fallout for everyone involved. In part, Devil is a grimly topical (if barely plausible) tale of bad blood, bad debt and the nasty deeds both will inspire in the poor of character. Callow, cruel and hopelessly overextended, Andy masterminds a break-in whose focus happens to be a mom-and-pop jewelry store run by his own parents (Rosemary Harris and the reliably hammy Albert Finney). The panicked accomplice in a silly rug we see bolting the scene is his younger brother Hank (a wonderfully abject Ethan Hawke), a weak link whose bankruptcy and devotion to his daughter make him fair game for Andy, whose motives for roping in his hopeless sibling are tainted equally by oedipal rage and avarice.

How you feel about this crummy bunch will depend not only on how you feel about marriage, family and sex, but on the subtle ways in which Lumet makes style talk to substance and vice versa. With elegant restraint, he carries us now a little bit forward, now a little bit back in time, retaking the same shot from different angles — the movie is as unromantic a poem to the director’s beloved New York as any movie shot in digital video can be, however hi-def — designed to slowly reveal the diseased minds behind the plot.

The brilliance of Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead — and finally its limitation — is that it’s never clear whether this is the stuff of melodrama or Lumet’s gnomic little joke. He’s always been drawn to those on the wrong end of life, but Lumet has never been a sentimentalist. Until now, he hasn’t been a cynic either. Though Before the Devil is being touted as one of his best films, to my mind it doesn’t begin to compare with the antic compassion he showed Al Pacino’s would-be transsexual in Dog Day Afternoon. With one exception, the characters in Before the Devil are an undifferentiated lot — weak, venal, unmoored either by a guiding gift for evil or by any sense of decency, driven only by overweening need, and incapable of love. To bring off this level of jaundice, you’d need the speed and cackling malice of a caper, but the movie is slow and stately and reaching, however halfheartedly, for moral and psychological depth about family toxicity.

It may be, as Lumet has argued, that in melodrama character necessarily plays second fiddle to circumstance. But the only player in this tawdry round-robin game who moved or seduced me in any way was Andy’s poor, hapless Gina. Tomei’s an ordinary beauty — set her down in downtown Great Neck or Sherman Oaks and she’ll blend in with all the other pretty Italian or Jewish brunettes. But she has real screen presence and range, and her neglected wife is an artful inversion of her Oscar-winning role as Danny DeVito’s pert squeeze in My Cousin Vinny. Gina may be a dim bulb who’s not above betrayal herself. But she’s a woman with just enough spine and discrimination to draw the line when nobody else will, and the nearest Before the Devil gets to a conscience. Which, in the end, is not quite enough.

BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD | Directed by SIDNEY LUMET | Written by KELLY MASTERSON | Produced by MICHAEL CERENZIE, BRIAN LINSE, PAUL PARMAR and WILLIAM S. GILMORE | Released by THINKFilm | Sunset 5, The Landmark, Town Center 5