Two brothers, both in various states of financial distress, plan to rob a small mom and pop jewelry store in West Chester, New York. Their plan is perfect. They know the layout of the place and its employees’ habits. They know all this, as this particular mom and pop store is owned by their own mom and pop.
Such is the deceptively simple set up of Sydney Lumet’s new film Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead. But keeping things simple is not how Lumet works, and it is relatively quickly into the film that things fall apart.
The narrative of the film constantly circles back on itself, with flashbacks that simultaneously illuminate a different character’s perspective on events we have already seen, while progressing the storyline a little further along. These revelations help to reveal onion-like layers about the characters as well as reinforce the story with additional motivations and complications. Younger brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) is sleeping with older brother Andy’s wife (Marisa Tomei), while Andy has his own costly indiscretions. Hank’s relationship with his ex-wife and daughter is strained, to say the least, but no more so than Andy’s is with his father (Albert Finney). The end result is a beautiful and complex tapestry that Lumet has woven for us right before our eyes.
As the manipulative older brother Andy, Philip Seymour Hoffman gives us another incredible, powerful performance that is simultaneously raw and unrestrained yet subtly shaded. Andy is a despicable person- selfish, jealous, manipulative and greedy. Yet throughout Hoffman’s portrayal, it is hard not to feel sympathy for Andy at certain points in the film, even if he is the root cause of all the misery he is going through. At one point in the film he expresses envy for the clean, clear absolutes of his chosen field of real estate accounting and laments how, in comparison to the rows and columns of numbers he deals with on a daily basis, the many sides of himself that he shows to various people doesn’t seem to add up to a whole person.
And while Hoffman has perhaps the meatiest role in the film, he in no way dominates it. Although there is no physical resemblance, Hawke and Hoffman’s interaction sketch a history between the two that suggests anything but happy childhoods for the pair. Tomei manages to find depth and misery for a character who has quickly become disenchanted with her role as trophy wife.
It would be easy to state that Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead is a culmination of Lumet’s five decades directing motion pictures, but it would be the right thing to say about this movie. Many of the themes he has explored over the years are examined again here, this time by fusing them together. The familial relations rival those found in Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962) or Running On Empty (1988). While several of Lumet’s films have dealt with manipulation and betrayal, it has never been done so on such an intimate level as it exists between Andy and Hank.
“The world is an evil place,” one of the characters is told at a particular junction of the story. “Some of us make money from it and some of us are destroyed.” It is not so much an observation but a warning. Things will end badly for many of the characters here. But in this instance, it’s the audience who profits.