In their discussion of “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” many commentators are focusing on the age of the director, Sidney Lumet, who turned 83 in June. Knowing how much sheer physical and mental effort goes into directing a movie, even a bad one, it is amazing that a man of Lumet’s age would have the stamina. The fact that it turned out to be a sinister and alarming crime thriller better than most of its genre brethren is even more astonishing.
But let us not dwell on the ridiculously large number of candles on Lumet’s birthday cake! “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” would be a fine movie for anyone to direct, consistently engaging and suspenseful, tragic in a grand, Greek way, and loaded with sharp performances. Lumet has often been interested in the law, whether in court proceedings (“12 Angry Men,” “The Verdict”) or in the actions of criminals (“Dog Day Afternoon”). It’s in the latter category that the new film falls, covering a robbery that goes poorly, and all of its terrible aftermath.
The first thing we see is Philip Seymour Hoffman, in his misshapen, porcine glory, having sex with Marisa Tomei, whom Lumet somehow convinced to get naked for the film. The scene makes for a jarring sight, especially when it’s the first thing in the movie, and already I’m thinking what I usually think about Hoffman’s characters: One way or another, this guy is a lowlife.
Ah, and that he is. He plays Andy, an accountant with a drug problem, and he and his younger brother, Hank (Ethan Hawke), have conspired to rob a mom-and-pop jewelry store in order to solve their financial woes. The heist starts well but ends badly. There are casualties.
From there the movie starts to shift timelines and perspectives. First we go back three days to see Hank; then it’s Andy the day before that; then we’re in the present again with their parents, Charles (Albert Finney) and Nanette (Rosemary Harris). We learn that Tomei’s character, Gina, is Andy’s wife, but that he has lost interest in her, leading her to seek fulfillment elsewhere.
The lean, efficient screenplay, by first-timer Kelly Masterson, parcels out information carefully, keeping us wrapped up in the story. When a flashback shows Andy and Hank talking about the robbery, we get the impression they’re career criminals, like Frank and Jesse James. Not so. Further flashbacks establish their characters more solidly. Andy has completely lost whatever moral compass he once had, having completely sold his soul to drugs. Hank, meanwhile, has money problems mostly due to having an ex-wife (Amy Ryan) and a daughter to support. His desperation, unlike Andy’s, is not entirely his own fault.
Hank sees the consequences of things. Andy sees only his own needs and desires. “It’s too late to think,” Andy tells his nervous brother at a point when they are neck-deep in trouble. You get the feeling that even if he had thought beforehand, he still would have done it. Neither of them, we gather, has committed a crime before — but Andy sure has a natural affinity for it.
I don’t want to say too much about it, but you should know that the boys’ father, Charles, becomes obsessed with finding an unknown assailant, and that his obsession threatens to destroy him the same way Andy and Hank’s foolish behavior may be their undoing.
It’s not the kind of movie that lends itself to a happy ending, is it? Yet it is the kind of movie that probably rewards multiple viewings, if only to stand in awe of the spot-on performances. Hoffman can make even the most sniveling and despicable character somehow seem human and relatable, always three-dimensional. Hawke is at the top of his game, too, playing Hank as a scared, sweaty mess who deserves something better than the raw deal he’s getting. Finney, Tomei, Harris — everyone’s in rare form. Seeing it a second time would be like seeing a new production of “Macbeth.” You already know the plot, but you can be riveted by the performances.
Lumet guides the film without extraneous details or scenes, using the natural momentum of the story to propel it. He has a musical score by Carter Burwell (who’s done all of the Coen brothers’ films) that feels urgent and ominous, playing the characters off to their destruction. And it sure is fun to watch, in the way that all good crime thrillers are — fun, and heartbreaking, and even scary.
There’s the old adage about desperate times calling for desperate measures. This is a movie about those desperate measures, and how they usually lead to more desperate times.
A (1 hr., 57 min.; )