In the '70s, when Sidney Lumet directed Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and Network, and later on through The Verdict and Q&A, you could love his films and still feel that he was an electrifying utilitarian-craftsman more than an artist. His tightly wired dramas of crime, honor, and corruption were rooted in the turmoil of the New York streets, and they caught the big desperation of little men, but there was nothing in them comparable to, say, the red-hot candied camera of Scorsese, the wizardry of Altman. Lumet's films took place under a fluorescent glare, in cruddy police offices and sterile boardrooms; his style was as plain as the talk at a midtown lunch counter, as direct yet haphazard as a misfired gunshot. He would plant the camera in a room and let his actors simmer and explode the quintessence of brute-force '70s realism. Lumet made teeming, energized, powerful movies, but he made them with prose rather than poetry.
Except that now, in the context of the glitzy, ADD-edited, steroidally pumped spirit of the modern megaplex thriller, that no-frills Lumet style, revived triumphantly in his mesmerizing new crime drama, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, looks like poetry after all. Lumet is now 83, but in Before the Devil he works with the vigor and cunning and wide-awake elegance of a virtuoso half his age. Those unbroken, slow-burn takes are really so much more than functional; Lumet's camera has become an invisible cage, inviting us to study the behavior of the human animals trapped inside. In the opening, Philip Seymour Hoffman, staring at a hotel mirror, has sex with Marisa Tomei, and if the image is lurid and a bit creepy (how did this Pillsbury Doughguy land that hottie?), their pillow talk creates a noirish afterglow of avarice, fleeting affection, and fear.
The film then cuts to ''The Day of the Robbery,'' at which point we see, played out in high-tension actual time, the holdup of a jewelry store in a suburban shopping mall. It's a crime so low-rent, and one that goes so spectacularly wrong, that this might be a Dog Day Afternoon that takes place, if possible, even further down the scale of criminal ineptitude. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead leaps around in time, structuring itself like one of those ''flashy'' post-Tarantino mind-benders, yet as the suspense strays from dank yuppie bars to a rent-a-car office to the swank designer lair of a super-upscale heroin dealer, what happens is so vivid and suck-in-your-breath real that none of it can be written off as a pop fantasy. The chronology isn't just fractured; it's ingeniously layered, as the script, by Kelly Masterson, keeps rotating back to situations we only thought we knew. We never feel we're watching ''criminals'' so much as banal ordinary men who have sunk to the level of acting like criminals. Which is so much scarier, because they could be us.
It's Hoffman's Andy who hatches the heist. He's the payroll manager at a tony Manhattan real estate office, but he's mired in debt, drugs, and a faltering sense of manhood (Tomei is the trophy wife he's scrambling to live up to), so when he taunts his brother, Hank (Ethan Hawke), into going in on a plan that will pay off for both of them, he's the voice of temptation. Hoffman, oozing scabrous charm, finds a gruesome strength in his character's weakness. Andy is a louse, but he knows how to play people, especially the little brother he still regards as a baby. Hank, who works at the same office, is dissolute and divorced, with child-support payments he can't keep up with. Which is why he goes for Andy's scheme: to rip off their parents' jewelry store. It's a ''victimless'' crime the insurance will cover, and that will net 60 grand for each of them, but it's also an act of blasphemy. Before the Devil is a zeitgeist movie, rooted in the new middle-class money hunger.
I'm not going to give away any more, because this is a movie you want to discover. You want to savor its bad behavior, its crime that blows up in everyone's face and, most potently, its tale of a family crashing on the rocks of its destiny. Hoffman has become a cathartic actor, who taps his darkest sides without protection, as if to say: Admit it, you all know this pain too. Late in the movie, he has the quietest trashing-the-room tantrum I've ever seen, and it's one of the most memorable. He and Hawke, who makes Hank a jumble of duplicity and childlike trust, give seismic performances, and so does Albert Finney as the dad who towers over both of them. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead may be the only movie I've seen that earns comparison to both a great film noir and Long Day's Journey Into Night. It's proof that Sidney Lumet's talent is, in every sense, timeless. A