Andy’s in debt. His brother Hank’s just scraping by. So when Andy proposes a robbery without a victim, Hank reluctantly agrees. Thing is, Andy’s plan is to rob their own parents’ jewellery store – harmlessly – and pawn the proceeds. But Hank bottles it and brings in a wayward colleague to do the deed. Three gunshots later mum and the robber are dead. And Hank and Andy’s world is about to unravel.
The chief attraction of the film is the wonderful playing of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke. Domineering and cocky, Hoffman imbues Andy with a control-freakery that’s deliciously undone when the plan goes wrong. And Hawke is a revelation as nervy loser Hank, spluttering from despair to rage.
Less convincing is Albert Finney as the father who won’t stop until his wife’s murder has been solved. Burning with bulbous intensity, Finney stays just the right side of believable – his wavering American accent less so.
Lumet’s time-lapse device – fragmenting events out of chronological order – adds a genuine frisson of intrigue. It serves, too, to highlight the cock-eyed nature of the brothers’ plan and the messy fall-out that follows.
Unsavoury touches soil things somewhat. Marisa Tomei is wasted and disrespected in a role that requires her simply to be naked a lot of the time – sexed from behind or filmed needlessly bare-breasted. Lumet no doubt intends to highlight the brothers’ selfishness. Rather, he displays an exploitative approach unworthy of the drama.
And occasionally you suspect Lumet of showy moves for the sake of it: a long tracking shot following Andy into the apartment of his drug-supplier leads to nothing. It’s quirky but so self-conscious that it detracts from the character statement (Andy’s an aimless waster) that’s no doubt intended.
But Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is superior stuff. A tragedy of sub-Shakespearean proportions, it’s a gripping story, with mesmerizing performances from the two leads. And for the most part, it’s devilishly entertaining.