Dark side explored in 'Before the Devil Knows You're Dead'

"May you have food and raiment, a soft pillow for your head; may you be 40 years in heaven before the devil knows you're dead." So say the Irish.

It's likely the devil was keeping a particularly close eye on the characters in the well crafted and superbly acted film "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," determined that they not slip into heaven undetected, for clearly they are a sordid and amoral group.

But in films of this ilk &

those that explore the dark side of human nature, that ponder morality or its absence &

if done well, can be strangely compelling and repellent simultaneously, creating a wash of conflicting emotions. And ultimately, isn't that the purpose of art?

In one nicely rendered scene &

and there are countless in this film &

a crafty old diamond merchant says, "The world is an evil place. Some people make money from it, and some people are destroyed by it." The assumption that man is inherently evil and that society restrains is an interesting premise. Base a film on such a premise and it lends itself to balancing on a nihilistic precipice, absent even a hint of redemption. But "Before the Devil" manages to avoid such a completely dark view and instead presents a series of characters, all of whom are deeply flawed but never completely evil. Lost? To be sure. Morally reprehensible? Absolutely. In fact, if postmodern life can be characterized as having no coherent moral center, then this film captures the essence of life as lived in the waning years of the 20th century (since WWII) and now the first decade of a new millennium.

To say more about the plot would be to rob the filmgoer of the opportunity to see "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" free of presumptions. Suffice it to say that not only are the lead actors &

Philip Seymour Hoffman, Marisa Tomei, Ethan Hawke and Albert Finney &

superb, but all of the supporting actors give exceptional performances. Even the diamond merchant, whose moment on the screen lasts perhaps a three minutes, is outstanding in his portrayal.

A few words about Hoffman and Tomei, who are likely two of the best actors working today. In one scene Hoffman pulls his car off the road, and clenching the steering wheel calls forth emotions of regret, anger and confusion so profound that he is wracked with feeling, tears streaming down his face. The camera cuts to Tomei whose face is transformed from concern and sympathy to tolerance, and finally a remoteness that says she has been here before.

Where such fine, polished actors find the abilities to portray agony which is not their own is astonishing. Hoffman can cross the spectrum of emotions with an ease that always surprises. He was every inch Truman Capote in the film "Capote," and Tomei was the consummate New Jersey girl in "My Cousin Vinny," both Oscar-winning performances. If for no other reason than the top drawer acting, "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" is worth seeing.

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