Solid, vital, keen and terrifically unsentimental, director Sidney Lumet is one of those non-visionary but top-notch pros who always merit a look, and he delivers impressively with “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” a heist flick and domestic drama. While the screenplay prevents it from equaling such Lumet fare as “Network” or “Dog Day Afternoon,” it’s a gripping, meaningful thriller.
Displaying his familiar interest in the urban condition and in the unease that it causes, Lumet has made a modestly scaled American tragedy this time. Set largely in Manhattan and in the family morass, the story opens with its central component, a botched robbery. Lumet and screenwriter Kelly Masterson then take us every which way to piece together the predicaments that have prompted the crime and to reveal its horrible consequences.
Two conversely tempered,financially strapped brothers are responsible for the mess. Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a controlling realty-firm manager with an expensive secret, intimidates younger, gutless Hank (Ethan Hawke), who owes tons in child support, into robbing their parents’ jewelry store. After Hank fouls things up, the pair’s frantic attempts at damage control spark further disaster.
Thickening the bigger picture are two supporting characters. Gina (Marisa Tomei), Andy’s restless trophy wife, is sleeping with Hank. Charles (Albert Finney), the brothers’ vengeful father, can’t contain his distress over all the goings-on. As the crime’s aftershocks continue, bonds and lives unravel.
The film’s problems stem largely from playwright Masterson’s debut screenplay, which, while often sharp, goes overboard in its Shakespearean aspirations at climax time. This translates into implausible behavior on the part of the characters, which nearly brings down the movie. The female characters, meanwhile, are underdeveloped.
But for a healthy stretch of its two hours, the film is an absorbing heist tale whose tragedies, both Greek and small, Lumet makes resonant. It is also a potent psychological drama that is affectingly propelled by desperation (a Lumet staple) and shaded with nuance.
Touching on everything from a father’s disappointment in his sons (and vice versa) to built-up brother-vs.-brother antagonisms to the equating of six-figure salaries with personal worth, this material is thick with familial and modern truths. The bully-and-“baby” (Dad’s term for his younger son) dynamics that characterize the brothers’ interactions, played by a solid Hawke as the timid Hank and an incredible Hoffman as the despicable but tangibly human Andy, are captivating.
The title comes from the Irish drinking toast.
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead ***
Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Marisa Tomei, Albert Finney
Written by Kelly Masterson
Directed by Sidney Lumet
Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes