Let's face it: Family isn't all sunshine and roses. We all have issues with our immediate kin, but, happily, most of us don't face the sort of family turmoil found in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, the new film from octogenarian Sidney Lumet that explores what happens when a pair of brothers try to expand the family business into robbery and end up in a spiral of chaos and murder.
The film's timeline jumps back and forth, and so does the opening scene, which finds Andy (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) banging his wife Gina (Marisa Tomei) from behind in workmanlike fashion. In their post-coital snuggle, however, we discover that there's trouble in paradise. Their marriage is disintegrating, and all they want to do is leave their troubled New York lives behind. The problem? Money. As in, there's not enough of it. So Andy approaches his twitchy younger brother Hank (Ethan Hawke), an incompetent drone with his own money problems, for a small-time robbery that could earn each of them enough to get ahead.
The plan is to knock off a suburban mom-and-pop jewelry store. It's almost foolproof, because both bros know how the store operates, how the alarms work and the location of all the choice pieces. And how do they know all this? Because it's their own mom (Rosemary Harris) and pop (Albert Finney).
Yes, Andy is proposing that they rob their parents' store. Thanks to insurance, it'll be a victimless crime, he reasons. Of course, things go awry before they even begin. Hank loses his nerve and turns to his lowlife buddy Bobby (talented stage actor Brian F. O'Byrne) to do the deed. Robbery turns to bloodbath, and Charles, the father, embarks on a mission to sort out what went down. On top of that, Bobby's girlfriend is gunning for Hank, and Andy's in a bind at the office, where it seems he's had his fingers in the company's honey pot.
At its heart, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is about corruption, something Lumet has been making movies about for many, many years. This is the guy behind Serpico, Network and The Verdict. His work here is perfectly solid, if—somewhat like Hoffman's attention to Tomei in the opening scene—workmanlike. The film is strong enough, but its small-time nature doesn't make it particularly memorable. The real strengths lie in the top-shelf cast and in Kelly Masterson's script, which is terrifically intricate, allowing the characters their very human faults.
Hank is thick, making newbie mistakes that just dig the holes he's in only deeper, and Andy's own dark secrets end up defining him and explaining why he would even consider masterminding a scam as poorly considered and morally bankrupt as the one he sets in motion. Hoffman is a masterful actor, and he truly lets Andy's house of cards wobble and fall. Still, the characters here aren't generally likeable, giving the entire picture a sense of authenticity and nastiness but also making it challenging to give a damn about what happens to them.
The movie has received exceedingly good notices, but it's hard not to feel as though some of them come courtesy of Lumet's advancing years. This is a director who's made timeless films, but, in this case, the sense of an elastic timeline isn't as exciting as it was a decade ago. The movie is sharp, but when things go south, it's not as if the characters, human and flawed as they are, don't deserve what's coming to them.