Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is less Sidney Lumet's comeback than his resurrection. Three years after being presented a Lifetime Achievement Oscar, the 83-year-old director comes forth with a violent family melodrama that is his strongest movie in at least two decades.
Robustly directed from Kelly Masterson's bear-trap screenplay and lit up with a number of live-wire performances, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead opens with a happy couple making love like porn stars — the big surprise is that they're married...to each other! — and a bungled stickup in a suburban jewelry store. Going wrong in a half-dozen crucial ways, the holdup leaves the perp dead, the elderly proprietress dying and the putative getaway car careening around the mall and out into the Westchester morning. That the sex act has engendered the robbery will only gradually become apparent. When the action flashes back three days to the preparations for the crime, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead has already established itself as the story of a disaster.
Hank (Ethan Hawke) is a deadbeat dad perpetually behind on his child-support payments and regularly browbeaten by his singularly vindictive ex-wife (Amy Ryan in an effectively soul-crushing one-note performance). Indeed, it seems to be the money that his young daughter needs for a class outing to see The Lion King that pushes hapless Hank into joining his smooth-talking older brother, Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman), in a scheme to rob their parents' store. To add to the familial intrigue, Hank is carrying on an affair with Andy's restless trophy wife, Gina (Marisa Tomei, variously a purring sex machine and a scared bystander, who is hot or cold, sympathetic or selfish as the script requires).
Hawke's need to ingratiate himself as an actor usefully informs his character; he makes an excellent baby brother, a frisky pup and an appealing nitwit whose moist smile and frightened eyes are impossible to resist. Hoffman uses his bulk as a form of authority and a bulwark against the world; he's too versatile an actor to be considered playing against type. Andy is a dead-voiced, doughy mass of repressed rage who also has a secret life: He needs money to feed his drug habit and escape an embezzlement charge that's hanging over his head. Smacked out in a luxury shooting gallery, he tells the epicene proprietor: "All my parts don't add up."
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead pivots on the relationship between these two unlikely brothers — the manipulative elder and weak-willed younger. (Making them siblings rather than friends was Lumet's contribution to the scenario.) Adding to the rivalry is Andy's hatred for his father, Charlie, played by Albert Finney. Sitting with his comatose wife (Rosemary Harris), Dad suggests a fish gasping for breath: This is a movie with a surplus of agonized male grimacing. There are some scenes in which Hawke's face is contorted beyond recognition, and others where he and Hoffman seem on the verge of upchucking from the stress. Indeed, Hoffman has a series of crazed one-on-ones, with Finney and Tomei as well as Hawke, that nearly justify the movie's grueling denouement.
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead doesn't always compute, but there's little chance to complain. Even as the shuffled chronology adds to the angst, it's the location of murderous violence within a single family that pushes the action toward Greek tragedy. The movie grabs hold and runs you through the wringer. Shot like a bleary morning after, full of powerhouse scenes and over-the-top situations in nondescript locales, it's a pulverizing experience. As a reptilian old 47th Street fence tells the bereaved Charlie, his voice corroded with schadenfreude: "The world is an evil place."