This is a thoroughly diabolical tale of just how bad things can go wrong. A simple robbery. Pick up some serious change. Get our finances together and everything will be hunky-dory. But--mom and pop's jewelry store? No problem. Insurance pays for it all. No guns. Nobody gets hurt. Easy money.
Older, more successful (it would appear) brother Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has a few minor problems. Heroin addiction, cocaine habituation. A wife (Marisa Tomei) that...well, he can't seem to perform for. His flat belly days long gone. Younger, sweet, slightly dim-witted younger brother, Hank (Ethan Hawke) with a few dinero problems of his own. Behind in child support payments for his daughter, in debt to friends and relatives, not exactly wowing them in the work of work, etc.
Sydney Lumet, in this performance at the age of 82 (!), directs and gets it 99.99 percent right, which is hard to do in a thriller. I have seen more thrillers than I can remember and most of the time the director gets the movie printed and lives with the plot holes, the improbabilities, the cheesy scenes, and the hurry-up ending. Here Lumet makes a thriller like it's a work of art. Every detail is perfect. The acting is superb. The plot has no holes. The story rings true and clear and represents a tale about human frailty that would honor the greatest filmmakers and even the Bard himself.
Hoffman of course is excellent. When you don't have marquee, leading man presence, you have to get by on talent, workmanship and pure concentration. Ethan Hawke, who is no stranger to the sweet, little guy role, adds a layer of desperation and all too human incompetence to the part so that we don't know whether to pity him or trash him. Albert Finney plays the father of the wayward sons with a kind of steely intensity that belies his age. And Marisa Tomei, who has magical qualities of sexiness to go along with her unique creativity, manages to be both vulnerable and hard as nails as Andy's two timing wife. (But who could blame her?)
It's almost a movie reviewer's sacrilege to give a commercial thriller five or ten stars, but if you study this film, as all aspiring film makers would be well advised to do, you will notice the kind of excessive (according to most Hollywood producers) attention to detail that makes for real art--the sort of thing that only great artists can do, and indeed cannot help but do. (By the way, I think there were twenty producers on this film--well, maybe a dozen; check the credits.) All I can say in summation is, Way to go Sydney Lumet, author of a slew of excellent films, and to show such fidelity to your craft and your art at such an advanced age--kudos. May we all do half so well.
Okay, the 00.01 percent. It was unlikely that the father (Albert Finney) could have followed the cabs that Andy took around New York without somehow losing the tail. This is minor, and I wish all thrillers could have so small a blip. Also one wonders why Lumet decided not to tell us about the fate of Hank at the end. We can guess and guess. Perhaps his fate fell onto the cutting room floor. Perhaps Lumet was not satisfied with what was filmed and time ran out, and he just said, "Leave it like that. It really doesn't matter."
And I think it doesn't. What happens to Hank is not going to be good. He isn't the kind of guy who manages to run off to Mexico and is able to start a new life. He is the kind of guy who gets a "light" sentence of 10 to 20 and serves it and comes out a kind of shrunken human being who knows he wasn't really a man when he should have been.
See this for Sidney Lumet, one of Hollywood's best, director of The Pawnbroker (1964), The Group (1966), Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Network (1976), and many more.