Philip Seymour Hoffman. Don’t you just adore the guy? Right down to the frumpy, marquee-defying name: Philip Seymour Hoffman. If the camera can be said to love certain people, it practically mocks Philip Seymour Hoffman. Cinematographers and lighting technicians love to irradiate him with sickly green locker-room lighting. Wardrobe and key hair delight in fitting him out with greasy hair, unfashionable eyeglasses and Soviet cast-off suits.
When did you first notice him? For me it was Scent of A Woman, in which he played a sniveling patrician piglet trying to go on a ski trip and leave Chris Donnelly holding the bag—a performance all the more appealing because it provided temporary refuge from Al Pacino’s habitual overacting. Since those first stirrings of infatuation: Brandt in The Big Lebowski, the fumbling Allen in Happiness, piteous Scotty J. in Boogie Nights, arrogant Freddie Miles in The Talented Mr. Ripley, Lester Bangs in Almost Famous, the titular Mahowny in Owning Mahowny. Could you dream up a better character rap sheet?
With the exception of Scotty J in Boogie Nights, it’s rare to find yourself sympathizing with characters Hoffman plays, much less rooting for them. It’s not especially gratifying when his more disagreeable characters get their comeuppance; on the other hand, you rarely feel the protective anxiety for his less repugnant characters that you might feel for those played by Jane Adams, his co-star in Happiness, the one who dumps Jon Lovitz and hooks up with the Russian guy who woos her with “You Light Up My Life.” Hoffman’s characters always seem to pass some test of psychological plausibility that makes them believable to us, but rarely in such a way that we end up caring about them.
By this point, part of that is conditioning: Things rarely turn out well for Hoffman’s characters, so serial viewers know not to get too attached. That’s the way I like it, so I got a sinking feeling less than a minute into Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, when it looked, for a few disconcerting moments, like I was going to have to care what happened to him. What post-coital vulnerability for Philip Seymour Hoffman, a breathless “Oh, wow” hitching in his throat and his awkward pillow talk with Marisa Tomei!
Thank heavens it passed quickly, and before long other things reassured me. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (terrible name, terrible poster) stars Hoffman as a bullying older brother to Ethan Hawke (whom we first see in wig and moustache left over from a Ben Stiller Seventies-Sendup-of-the-Month DVD outtake, or perhaps a Beastie Boys music video). Both brothers need money—Hawke for reasons made clearer earlier to the viewer—so when Hoffman’s Andy Hanson rolls out a plan for little brother to pull a holdup on a jewelry store and lays on a little fraternal goading, little brother Hank can hardly say no. It’s perfect, says Andy: He knows the floor plan, safe combinations, banking schedule and when the dotty old lady is going to be working. Hank won’t need a real gun. The owners will cash in big on the insurance payout. Everybody’s a winner, and no one will get hurt.
Right. You can blame the movie’s tagline, not me, for giving away that plot point: It comes right out and says “No one was supposed to get hurt.” I don’t think I’ve revealed too much, but see for yourself, and see if it isn’t one of the most engrossing dramas you’ve seen this year or any year. At 80, director Sidney Lumet is still showing little Hollywood punks how to make a crime movie.
Before the Devil is packed with terrific performances, from Hoffman, Hawke, Albert Finney—even Tomei, and I say “even” not to impugn her talent or editorialize on any freak Oscar wins, but because her role is a slight one. There isn’t much for her to do as Hoffman’s wife besides cheat on him, look suspicious and gaze distractedly out of car windows, but she still manages to underact her way to sublime and memorable. The supporting cast is peppered with intriguing indie mugs like Michael Shannon and Brian F. O’Byrne, whom fans of the TV prison series "Oz" will recognize as brooding IRA soldier Padraic Connelly.
Adding to the acting pleasure is the way Lumet and first-time screenwriter Kelly Masterson bring the characters into the story at a most agreeable pace, one at a time, the perfect complement to a Tarantino-style reshuffled narrative that subtly shifts the point of view and the weight of individual scenes. It buoys the movie along on little puffs on changing interest. Finney’s entrance is relatively late in the game—a risky gambit when we’ve already apportioned sympathies and tend to resist such gate-crashing—but strong and appropriately restrained.
And Hoffman? Still in top wormy form after Capote. We love him as a warped moral mirror and a medium for exorcising our feeblest, most cowardly hankerings by acting them out on our behalf. Just love the guy, period.