The “phew!” factor

Two new releases showcase Philip Seymour Hoffman's formidable talents

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (15) dir: Sidney Lumet

Charlie Wilson's War (15) dir: Mike Nichols

Two veteran directors who have enjoyed mixed fortunes since their heyday in the 1960s and 1970s return this week. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead harks back to former glories for Sidney Lumet, who should be canonised, or at the very least exempted from the congestion charge, for having made Dog Day Afternoon. But Mike Nichols (The Graduate, Catch-22) displays no such signs of rejuvenation in his lazy political comedy Charlie Wilson's War. At least these two directors have made one indisputably smart move: both of them have cast Philip Seymour Hoffman in the new films.

Even before he won an Oscar for Capote, Hoffman was a performer with a high "Phew!" factor: if his name cropped up in the opening credits, you knew you could relax. He's an old-fashioned character actor, which is not a euphemism for "funny-looking" - it means that he can nail a part in one punch, evoking an entire life in the smallest gesture. And yes, he's also funny-looking. In Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, his reddened face is ripe for lancing, and he has a thick vein writhing in his forehead like a restless python. He might appear to have sprung from the nib of Gerald Scarfe, but his acting style is immune to the temptations of caricature.

As ever, Hoffman brings surprising variations to the role of amoral sad-sack. He plays Andy, an embezzling accountant desperate to escape his sorry life and revive his ailing marriage. (If you want a measure of Hoffman's acting prowess, try this: he actually makes you believe he has stopped desiring his wife, even though she is played by Marisa Tomei.) Andy's genius idea is to enlist his rodent-like brother, Hank (Ethan Hawke), to rob their parents' jewellery store. The first hour is punchy, but that didn't stop me wanting to ask the characters: Don't you people ever watch films? Imagine the bloodshed that would have been averted if only Andy and Hank had glanced at The Killing or Reservoir Dogs.

Like those pictures, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead flashes back and forth between the heist's preparation and its aftermath. But there is originality here. Kelly Masterson's script cleverly uses the central crime to expose the mangled relationship between Andy and his ogre-like father (Albert Finney). Carter Burwell contributes an unforgettably plangent score. And, of course, there is Hoffman, making you feel sorry for this arrogant, conniving, murderous dunce.

He's also the best thing about Charlie Wilson's War, although the film itself is a dud. Wilson (Tom Hanks), a US congressman, hedonist and "man of many character flaws", takes up the cause of the mujahedin fighters in the early 1980s after catching a report on the Russian invasion of Afghanistan from the comfort of an overcrowded Jacuzzi. As he raises billions of dollars to defeat the Russians, a starry cast labours under a variety of accents and disguises, the most charmless participant being Julia Roberts in a Mr Whippy wig as Wilson's Texan benefactor. The film, based on real events, has a self-satisfied screenplay by Aaron Sorkin and is photographed in SorkinVision - which means lots of walking'n'talking shots like you get in The West Wing, if little of the verbal spit and crackle.

There are some pertinent digs at America's habit of getting the hell out of Dodge without first clearing up the mess it caused ("We leave," someone laments. "We always leave"). But the film could only qualify as illuminating for any greenhorns who never suspected that there are a lot of stupid people in government, or that today's good deed can become tomorrow's bad call. Just as you fear you'll overdose on the film's smugness, Hoffman sweeps in as a cynical CIA agent with an overbearing manner, and a moustache into which a child could stray and never be seen again, and you think: Phew!

Pick of the week

Paranoid Park (15)
dir: Gus Van Sant
Authentic teen angst permeates this dreamy, disquieting drama.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (15)
dir: Cristian Mungiu
Tough and compelling thriller about abortion in 1980s Romania.

The Lady Vanishes (PG)
dir: Alfred Hitchcock
This 1938 mystery on a train will be a tonic after the New Year’s railway woes.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Obama unmasked