Any potential criminal who professes faith in the idea of a “victimless crime” is likely in over his head, and in their attempt to quite literally rob the family jewels, the two brothers at the center of Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead do little to call that truism into question. The latest white-knuckle thriller from the 83-year-old Sidney Lumet opens with an unappetizing shot of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Andy giving it to his wife from behind, a fitting prelude to a story where everybody gets royally fucked—karmic payback for greed, cowardice, or general stupidity. It’s a bluntly effective, methodically detailed B movie that proves Lumet’s continued fidelity to a tried-and-true credo: all institutions corrupt. In the case of Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, that institution is the American family, and its victims are everywhere.
To ratchet up the tension, Kelly Masterson’s screenplay follows a shifty chronology, giving us the heist, the aftermath, and the preparations in seemingly random order. (Lumet punctuates each scene with the type of kinetic, back-and-forth cut that I haven’t seen since Easy Rider.) We know that the robbery of a Westchester mom-and-pop jewelry store has been botched, but we don’t know the stakes, or whose actual mom and pop run the store. The answers are soon revealed. Andy, a real-estate accountant in debt to his company, the IRS, and his heroin dealer, has hatched plans to rob his well-insured parents (Albert Finney and Rosemary Harris) in order to buy himself a second chance, and he’s enlisted ne’er-do-well baby brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) as an enforcer.
Most of Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead works so well as a fatalistic, post-Tarantino neo-noir that the last third’s attempt to frame the drama as King Lear-level tragedy plays as an unnecessary reach. Lumet gets the small stuff right; Andy’s Trump Tower drug den—with its deceptively waifish proprietor—is an impeccably designed cauldron of executive vice, and the director conveys senseless rage by letting Hoffman provide a master class in how to casually turn an apartment upside down. Hawke’s performance is also impressive, ably expressing the ways in which guilt and ineptitude feed off each other. But Lumet’s film ultimately cuts deepest in its bitter disquisition on the utility of family ties in an era of rampant capitalism. To paraphrase a side character who seeks restitution for his brother-in-law’s death: He was an asshole, but hey, he paid the bills.