Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Andy, a payroll manager for a large Manhattan firm. He is married to Gina, played by Marisa Tomei, stunningly beautiful here even more so than usual. He is successful, moderately wealthy, and from a distance appears to have his work and home life together. But that is all a mirage; Andy has an expensive heroin problem and is desperately in need of cash because he’s been skimming from work and auditors have come calling. His brother is Hank, played by Ethan Hawke. The two could not look less alike; that is the idea. Hank is a bit of a loser, in debt to his ex-wife (Amy Ryan) for child support and urgently wishing he could support his daughter and her class trip to see The Lion King. Hank isn’t as bright as Andy at a surface level, and he is – according to Andy anyway – favored by their father (Albert Finney). Hank is also sleeping with Gina.
The only thing these brothers seem to share (other than Gina) is a need for fast cash that is overwhelming everything else in their life. Andy has a plan, a fool proof plan that anyone who has ever watched a film of this kind knows isn’t fool proof. Andy will orchestrate the robbery of a jewelry store, one that is fully insured and free of any foreseeable threats. This is not just a random jewelry store, however, but I won’t get into details here. Hank will be responsible for pulling off the heist and the two will split the money. Of course, things go horribly wrong, as wrong as they could possibly go, and people end up dead. Andy and Hank are overcome with guilt and frustration, but they still need money. This predicament drives the rest of the story, but more than the mechanics of a simple thriller, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead dives headfirst into the implications of guilt and deception until the weight of these things unravel to the point of no return.
Before the Devil holds serve in the tradition of Greek tragedy, albeit on a smaller scale. Everything works. The performances from Hoffman and Hawke are of course the most pivotal of the film. Both men are pure dynamite. And the interaction between these two suggests a family history of resentment that we become privy to through subtle moments throughout. Finney, one of the more overlooked actors of his generation, is crucial later in the film as he begins to investigate the robbery homicide on his own. He shares a scene near the middle of the picture with Andy where things are said that cannot be unsaid. This is a devastating moment, and the power of one backhanded slap carries enough with it to tell us everything we need to know about the relationship of the men in this family. And Tomei is a stunner. She may be seen casually as an object that spends the majority of her screen time topless (and, honestly, what is wrong with that in the end?), but Tomei is a fulcrum between Andy and Hank, bouncing between these two broken men like a ping pong ball until her façade cracks.
As I mentioned earlier, the energy in the filmmaking of Before the Devil is something unfamiliar in Lumet’s work of the seventies and early eighties. Lumet traditionally allows his stories to unfold almost organically, but here he wisely opts for a more fragmented style. He follows a character to a certain point in the story, then pauses, doubles back, and picks up from the beginning with a new character and a new perspective. These storylines aren’t told in a different way, but shown through a different pair of eyes with different emotional impact. This allows Lumet to get everything he can out of the events, and heightens the melodramatic tone of the film.
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is a gripping thriller and even more of a thrilling family drama. It is Lumet’s most stylistic, distinguishable film from his filmography, along with Network. Of course, Network is more celebrated and most would call it a better film. But I suppose that depends on who you’re talking to, because Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead isn’t far off.