Crime doesn't pay in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. It burns and destroys, festering inside souls and eating away, dredging up the darkest secrets and impulses that were never meant to be found. Even if you get what you're looking for, the money or the drugs or what have you, there will still be plenty of hell to pay.
83-year old Sidney Lumet isn't letting anyone accuse him of getting soft in his old age, making an intensely dark film that combines old-fashioned filmmaking and a timeless kind of despair. Though in an age where countless procedural TV shows detail the kind of criminal minds on display here, Lumet digs deeper, offering as much an exploration of family dynamics as an examination of those dirty crooks.
The movie unfolds in a fractured timeline, detailing the events of a robbery gone awry from the perspectives of all of those participating in it. Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has suggested to his brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) what he calls a simple robbery, a hold-up of a mom and pop jewelry store out in the suburbs-- that is, their mom and pop's jewelry store. They know the layout, the schedule, the codes, and the fact that the place is insured-- "it's a victimless crime" Andy assures the skittish Hank. Andy's a high-powered real estate agent whose shady business practices have left him in financial hot water, and Hank struggles to make child support payments or even send his daughter on a class trip. The brothers, different as they are, are united in their desperation and willingness to sink to new lows.
Suffice it to say that nothing about the robbery goes right, thanks to Hank's decision to bring in an accomplice who adds a gun into the mix. It's Hank and Andy's mother Nanette (Rosemary Harris) who is the victim, an accident that leaves their father Charles (Albert Finney) in despair and Hank and Andy fearing they'll be caught. As characters in these situations tend to do, the brothers succeed only in digging themselves deeper, ensconced in a chain of events headed toward an inexorable, awful climax.
Hawke and Hoffman are both compelling in the lead roles, though as usual it's Hoffman who blows you away with his intense dedication to the character. Finney acquits himself well as an absent father but dedicated husband, and Marisa Tomei and Amy Ryan, as Andy’s wife and Hank’s ex-wife, respectively, manage not to fade into the background in this male-dominated film.
The well-drawn characters are key, since as a crime drama Before the Devil is riddled with inconsistencies and plot holes, some of which will cause an attentive viewer to sit up and say "Now wait a minute." It's fair to say that if it weren't directed by Lumet, Before the Devil would be regarded as a well-crafted but flawed crime thriller. Lumet does fine directing here, though, guiding his actors and propelling the story with tension that remains tight and at certain points unbearable. The lush score seems overbearing at times, playing under scenes that more modern directors might leave silent, but it emphasizes the old-fashionedness of the story, even with the fractured narrative structure. Lumet has learned a good bit from 50+ years in the business, and if a score that might have fit better in the ‘60s works for him, then damned if he doesn’t use it anyway. Lumet has made its own kind of film here, and despite its idiosyncrasies compared to more modern thrillers, it’s a fine addition to an outstanding season for movies.