Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (Think Film) offers the rare pleasure of watching a major director return to his own material and rework it 30 years later. This story of a pitiful jewel heist gone so profoundly wrong that it approaches the scope of Greek tragedy isn’t quite a remake of Dog Day Afternoon. But it revisits that movie’s claustrophobic suspense and deep compassion for its characters—abject, grasping everymen who truly believe they’re only one act of violence away from everything they’ve ever wanted.
Here, the transsexual-loving bank robber played by Al Pacino has been replaced by two downwardly mobile brothers, Andy Hanson (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank Hanson (Ethan Hawke). The shiftless Hank holds down an office job—barely—while falling behind on the child-support payments and school tuition he owes to his furious ex-wife (Amy Ryan.) As for Andy—well, what problem doesn’t Andy have? He’s been skimming money off the payroll at his Manhattan real-estate firm to support his taste for coke and heroin. His neglected wife, Gina (Marisa Tomei), has been schtupping his brother behind his back, while at the same time enabling his delusion that their sexless marriage might revive if only they could move to Rio. And, as we learn later, the boys’ father (Albert Finney) has always made lumpy, charmless Andy feel less important than handsome but half-bright Hank.
So Andy decides to get even and strike it rich by holding up a jewelry store in a suburban strip mall. The catch: The store is called Hanson Jewelers, and it’s owned and run by Andy and Hank’s parents (Finney and Rosemary Harris). The way Andy tells it to Hank, this will be a victimless crime: The store’s insurance will cover the losses, the old lady who works there on Saturday mornings won’t be harmed, and after fencing the jewels, each brother will go home with a tidy $60,000.
Always be wary when a pasty, sweating, debt-riddled drug addict assures you that no, really, this one’s a sure thing. Andy’s plan is a virtual blueprint for disaster, but Hank, desperate for money and eager to be part of what his brother spins as a once-in-a-lifetime act of daring, agrees to be the masked robber. That is, until he chickens out and recruits his lowlife friend Bobby Lasorda (Brian F. O’Byrne) to do the job while Hank drives the getaway car. The day of the robbery, Bobby does something predictably idiotic, followed by something unpredictably horrifying. As a result, the Hanson brothers find themselves not only as broke as ever, but screwed six ways to Sunday.
All of this happens in the first 10 minutes. The rest of the movie spirals backward and forward in time, revisiting the days leading up to the robbery from one character’s point of view, then another’s. This kind of temporal and narrative trickery can be tiresome in the wrong hands, but Lumet makes the point-of-view shifts feel not only graceful but somehow necessary. (This is, after all, a man whose prolific and, let’s admit it, checkered filmography includes a 1960 television remake of Rashomon, starring Ricardo Montalban!) Kelly Masterson’s screenplay revisits the day of the robbery over and over like a perp returning to the scene of the crime—or a guilty son obsessing over a terrible mistake.
Lumet also has a history of directing filmed plays (12 Angry Men, Equus, Long Day’s Journey Into Night), and while Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is nothing if not kinetic, there’s something theatrical about it, too. Some of the performances, especially Hawke’s, veer toward the mannered, and Albert Finney has a late scene straight out of a Grand Guignol melodrama. But every bit player hits the mark, especially Michael Shannon (Bug) as a coolly pragmatic blackmailer.
Hoffman is sensational as the hubristic brother who falls farther and faster than he ever thought possible. Andy’s flop sweat as the auditors in his office zero in on him recalls the actor’s performance in Owning Mahony, the underrated 2003 indie about a bank manager who embezzles money to support his gambling habit. But as the truth about the robbery begins to emerge later in the movie, a Hoffman surfaces that we’ve seldom seen before. While he did invest the jokey villain of Mission Impossible: III with some real menace, there’s still something fundamentally nice about Hoffman—a sense that, in real life, he couldn’t possibly be a jerk— and that makes Andy’s devolution into savagery so much more shocking. Late in the film, as Andy’s life crumbles around him, we watch him set about destroying his own apartment—not in a Citizen Kane-style rage, but deliberately, almost thoughtfully. He trashes that place like someone with nothing left to prove and nothing left to lose—sort of the way Sidney Lumet makes movies.