Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
Directed by Sidney Lumet. Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, Marisa Tomei, Rosemary Harris, Michael Shannon, Amy Ryan, Brían F. O'Byrne. (2007, R, 116 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Nov. 9, 2007
You'd have to go back at least to 1981's Prince of the City or possibly even further, to the director's mid-Seventies knockout trifecta of Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and Network, to find a Lumet film with as much thrilling, double-up-and-puke-on-your-cuffs pizzazz as this spiraling descent into epic suburban tragedy. This is one of those films where the less you know going in, the better time you'll likely have, but the bare bones go like this: Two brothers, Hank (Hawke) and Andy (Hoffman) Hanson, plot the robbery of a jewelry story to alleviate their individual financial woes. This misguided robbery, it will surprise no one, goes horrifically wrong and sets off a chain reaction of cascading disasters for not only the brothers Hanson but also, ultimately, for the entire Hanson family. The situation doesn't just bomb; it goes all-out nuclear. Hoffman is grossly reptilian and terrifically venal as the marginally more amoral of these hell-bound sibs, while Hawke employs his trademark soulfulness to suggest not grace or bad-boy machismo but a muzzy sort of indecisive, emasculated weakness; he may look like a knight, but to his brother, he's less even than a pawn. Finney, as the Hanson paterfamilias, verges on the Shakespearean in his towering, babbling, wrathful performance, and even the smaller parts here – Tomei as Hoffman's wife, for instance – are fully fleshed performances. Lumet is 83 years old now, but the storyline in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead carries both the rhythms of youthful vanity – and its attendant fearlessness – and the dead-on, relentless morality of an Old Testament Hollywood hand (although, like compatriot John Frankenheimer, Lumet rose to prominence on the back of the emerging medium of television). There are echoes of previous Lumet characters here – a dash of Rod Steiger's Pawnbroker, a splash of The Verdict's sozzled Paul Newman – but while the evil that men do to one another in this film may well be rooted in the Cain-like enabling of original sin from one doomed brother to another, the final familial tragedy feels exactly like classic Lumet.