Sidney Lumet has been making movies for fifty years, ever since “Twelve Angry Men” (1957). It’s been a bumpy career, marked by some excellent films but, especially in the later period, mostly mediocre ones. That’s why it’s so good to see him rally as an octogenarian to produce a picture as dramatically exciting as this one, a moody, expertly-crafted combination of crime story and domestic drama with a superb ensemble cast, told at a high pitch that threatens to slip into parody but never quite crosses the line.
“Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” is basically a modern film noir about a botched robbery involving a dysfunctional family, but Lumet and screenwriter Kelly Masterson have revved it up with some fancy narrative footwork, breaking the story into discrete scenes focusing on the individual characters and then shuffling them around chronologically to provide changing perspectives on the misguided crime and its ramifications that eventually coalesce in the end. In theory the effect of the one-step-forward, two-steps-back structure should be self-consciously arty and precious, but in practice it’s pulled off so deftly that it makes for an engaging puzzle rather than an annoying trick, enriching the narrative rather than simply juicing it up.
That’s attributable not just to the canny script and crisply vital direction, though, but to an excellent cast working at peak form. Philip Seymour Hoffman anchors the film as Andy Hanson, the snide, ostensibly well-heeled and super-confident payroll manager at a Manhattan real estate firm. But actually he’s been embezzling funds to support a drug habit, and an impending audit threatens his whole existence. That’s why he enlists his weakling younger brother Hank (Ethan Hawke)—a divorced salesman at the same firm who’s way behind in child-support payments (and is also having a torrid affair with Andy’s wife Gina, played by Marisa Tomei)—in a “victimless” robbery scheme involving the jewelry store their parents (Albert Finney and Rosemary Harris) run in a suburban shopping center. Naturally the heist—in which Hank, unbeknownst to Andy, involves a singularly inept confederate (Bryan F. O’Byrne)—goes very wrong, and the brothers find their lives unraveling as their father obsessively seeks to find the guilty parties and avenge his loss.
The picture is thus not merely the anatomy of a robbery gone awry but a portrait of a family disintegrating under the weight of old crimes and misdemeanors, and the mixture invests what might have been just a slick genre exercise with deeper emotional currents. It’s masterfully acted down the line, predictably by Hoffman and Finney, who draw remarkable pictures of desperation and fury, but—more surprisingly, by Hawke, who makes Hank genuinely pathetic as well as jittery, and Tomei, who gets Gina’s combination of tired contempt for Andy self-loathing just right. And Lumet showcases the performances beautifully, working with cinematographer Ron Fortunato to create an atmosphere of foreboding within compositions that add just a dash of stylization to gritty, naturalistic settings and of hysteria to the action within them. And he punctuates a usually straightforward approach with occasional virtuoso touches, as in a remarkable tracking sequence when Andy is first shown visiting the sleek apartment of his drug supplier. Carter Burwell’s supple score adds to the ominous atmosphere.
“Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” is in many respects a testimony to the sort of old-fashioned craftsmanship represented by a man like Sidney Lumet. There’s a rightness to what he does here that seems effortless but is the fruit of a half-century’s experience. And yet the picture is in no way a relic or an exercise; it seems so fresh and intense that you might mistake it for the work of a young man. It would be an apt conclusion to a distinguished career. But it’s so good one hopes that Lumet will go on to make lots more movies of this quality.