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Before the devil knows you’re dead, Mom

Carly at the Movies column by Carl Larsen

“Write a movie review about Mother’s Day,” growled my editor.

“But Mother’s Day will be over by the time it’s published on Monday!” I exclaimed logically.

My editor growled, spat out his nasty old cigar, and bit the head off a live chicken. I got the idea. So I stuck “Mom” on the end of the title for this review, hoping he would think it’s about Mother’s Day. But it’s not. Sorry about that. Please forgive me. But you know how editors are.

Now, let’s review the movie:

All the new films released this week look either stupid or crappy, so I decided to watch the DVD of a 2007 movie I missed when it came out called “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.”

There’s a mother in it, for sure, but she doesn’t fare too well right from the get-go. And it seems to me the theme of the film might be: Never Listen to Your Elders. Or at least, your elder brother.

The great Philip Seymour Hoffman, who seems to relish playing characters that make you feel squeamish, is the elder brother in this case. His younger brother, a pishy little loser, is nicely portrayed by Ethan Hawke. Both have big-time problems, and together with petty thug Brian F. O’Bryne, they set up a heist that (of course) goes very, very wrong.

This could be just any gritty post-“Reservoir Dogs” heist movie, but it’s directed by Sidney Lumet, who turns it into a fascinating – almost spellbinding – character study. He’s an old-timer, dating back to the golden age of television, having directed for “Studio One” and others, and his film directing credits include “The Pawnbroker,” “Fail-Safe,” “Serpico,” and “Dog Day Afternoon.” The man is a legend, and he’s lost none of his edginess in his 80s.

“Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” is top-notch entertainment if you don’t mind waltzing with some of the low-downest critters on God’s green earth. I mean, let’s face it, who but an absolute snake would plot to rob his own parents’ jewelry store?

That’s the idea at the beginning, and in a story line that’s as taut as a fiddle string, director Lumet masterfully manipulates flashbacks and shocking action shots to keep you chained to your seat (or sofa, if you’re watching it on DVD).

So the skinny is, Hoffman’s got probs, both marital and financial, and he eases his pains with fancy designer drugs. Needs money, big time, so he talks his punky lil’ bro into pulling a heist at mom and dad’s jewelry store in a strap mall in Westchester County.

Li’l bro Ethan Hawke is too scared to do it himself, so he drives the getaway car whilst a rat-fink friend, O’Bryne, actually pulls off the job. Or starts to, when things get hairy.

I don’t want to go any further than that in explaining the plot, but believe me it’s full of dreadfully shocking twists and turns as it flashes back and forth, reminding me of “Pulp Fiction” and “Reservoir Dogs” kinda halfway rolled into one and nearly as good as either.

O’Bryne, by the way, is a small gem on his own. I first took notice of him last year in Showtime’s dark mob drama, “Brotherhood.” In that excellent series, he plays a frighteningly cold-blooded member of the clan, just off the ‘tater boat from Dublin and willing to do most anything to get ahead. Fine actor with numerous Broadway credits and Tony noms.

Considering who directed the film and who starred in it (I forgot to mention Albert Finney plays the dad and Marisa Tomei has one spectacular scene as Hoffman’s wife), I shouldn’t have been surprised as I was when it turned out to be such a good movie.

The title, of course, comes from an old Irish saying, “May you be two hours in Heaven before the Devil knows you’re dead.”

I’d say, don’t miss it. But on the other hand, don’t give it to your Mom as a belated Mother’s Day gift, either.


Carl Larsen is a regular contributor to The Augusta Free Press. Look for his At the Movies column on Mondays.

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