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It's hard to conceive that a director born in 1927 would still be making haunting and powerful movies.  Sidney Lumet, somewhat absent from American cinema despite making five films in the past decade, has returned to the forefront of moviemaking with his latest film "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead."  The film stars Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Marisa Tomei and Albert Finney in roles both terrible and terribly good. 

The films chronicles four days in the life of two brothers, Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank Hanson (Ethan Hawke), who are down on their luck, broke and in need of cash.  In an effort to solve their financial woes, they concoct a scheme to rob their parents jewelry store, a strip mall joint out in Westchester, New York. 

But the plan goes awry, and Andy and Hank quickly find themselves faced with more problems than they imagined.  As with all morality stories, the brothers find themselves doing the unimaginable in a effort to hide their crime.   The unimaginable culminates with the unthinkable. 
I'm not sure what it says that Mr. Hoffman has been able to master role of the chilling, scary, sometimes evil, but often just creepy loser-man, but he has. This particular role feels like a compilation of several of Mr. Hoffman's previous characters.  Allen in "Happiness" and then Scotty J. in "Boogie Nights.  Wilson Joel from "Love Liza" and Dan Mahowny from "Owning Mahowny" into the mix.  Add Dean Trumbell from "Punch Drunk Love" and the final product is Andy Hanson.  Andy's a climber and convinced that his street smarts will get him to the top.  But as with all folks of Andy's kind, he's plagued with a series of emotional shortcomings, and has made a plethora mistakes along the way.  He's stolen money, developed an expensive drug habit and it's finally caught up to him.  

Mr. Hawke is a loser of the opposite sort.  He's broke because he's a goofy idiot who underperforms on the job.  He's a mama's boy and can't seem to cut it in the real world.  He gets suckered into the robbery game primarily because he can't pay child support or afford to his send his daughter on field trips.  Brother Andy knows it and, praying on Hank's weakness, enlists him to carry out the plan.

Mr. Lumet, directing from a script by first-timer Kelly Masterson, doesn't unfold this story in a linear fashion.  He jumps around between days and perspectives and points of view, which means you often see things two or three times.  In the hands of a lesser talent, "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," might have been too schizophrenic or redundant to tolerate.  Instead, Lumet has compiled, with the help of one of the year's best ensembles, a gripping tale of deception and despair.  It's tense from the very beginning, and overwhelmingly satisfying.

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