Hank (Ethan Hawke) and Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) are two brothers who together make a blisteringly bad decision out of desperation for money and a better future. Hank struggles with bills and child support for his daughter. Andy has a secret heroin habit, has been embezzling money at his job, and can't properly communicate with his frustrated wife (Marisa Tomei). If they could just get their heads above water, they think, and start anew with enough cash, everything about their lives would improve.
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So Andy, the oldest and more dominant of the brothers, comes up with a scheme to rob their elderly parents' jewelry store. Both Hank and Andy worked there in their youth, they know the store is insured, they know the work schedules and alarm systems. The robbery should be easy and victimless. But, as we see in fractured flashbacks and varied points of view, everything spins violently out of control. The more the brothers try to clean up their mess, the dirtier and bloodier they get. Now, no matter how things end up, they are certainly existing in a nightmare they have created for themselves. Albert Finney also stars as their weary father.
Best part of story, including ending:
I enjoyed how unsentimental and blunt the film was. You do feel that this is a living, breathing dysfunctional family with an entire history of resentments and mistakes. But it's not presented in an overdramatic or cloying way. They just tell it like it is. The fizzling marriage between Andy and his wife is particularly well-done. They are certainly unhappy overall. Yet, there are still several moments where they laugh with each other, flirt with each other. They're trying to have a good relationship. Just because it's ultimately not working, doesn't mean it's 100% misery. That kind of subtlety and naturalism is very deftly achieved by both the writers and the actors.
The out-of-sequence narrative, however, doesn't always work. Staging the robbery at the beginning of the film and then showing us what led up to it, fine. But having the aftermath be as equally jumbled makes the tension and forward momentum start to slip at times. This isn't a perfect thriller, but it carries you through its specific, lived-in bleakness (and far off glimmers of hope) so brazenly that you can't help but be unsettled.
Best scene in story:
My favorite scene of the film is probably when Andy finally tells Hank the entire plan for robbing their parents. Tucked away in Andy's office, he first makes Hank agree to a robbery in general before specifying the location. He instructs his little brother to raise his hands in the air as he agrees, to make sure he's not crossing his fingers like he would have when they were children. Hank does so. Then the truth is revealed and the dread that creeps into the room is palpable. Hank looks sick to his stomach, but Andy just presses on, sweet talking him, and we understand the power dynamic between the two perfectly. Hank cannot back out. It's a scene both grandiose and gritty, a tightrope the film as a whole walks very well.
Opinion about the main character:
Although Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman are co-leads, Hoffman is the clear standout of the cast. Here he plays one of the most steely and intimidating characters of his career, shaking with restrained rage as easily as he flashes a mischievous smile. Yet Andy's black sheep status within his family and his misplaced, vulnerable confessions to his drug dealer make us sympathize with him nonetheless. His actions are horrendous, but they don't come from an innate malice. He's a man who can't stand to endure any more bitter disappointments. And he will literally kill if it means he has a chance of escape.