Someday, there will be a heist movie in which everything goes swimmingly and the criminals get away with tons of cash and use it to retire to a lovely tropical island. Until then, there will continue to be movies like Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, in which a seemingly foolproof robbery scheme goes horribly awry for loser brothers Andy (Hoffman) and Hank (Hawke). Both hurting for money—Andy because he’s embezzling from the real-estate firm where he works to bankroll his luxurious lifestyle (and drug habit), Hank because he can’t manage to hold down a job—they hatch a scheme to knock off the suburban jewelry store owned by their parents. No one gets hurt, insurance takes care of Mom and Dad, and the brothers come away with a tidy profit—right?
Well, of course not, and how it all unravels is what should make the movie interesting. But veteran director Lumet and screenwriter Kelly Masterson structure the film in an odd temporal loop, beginning (after a short flashback) with the robbery, then doubling back multiple times to show various perspectives. Even after moving past the initial event into its aftermath, the movie continually backs up on itself, shifting points of view to depict the same events over and over again.
It’s a tired tactic that consistently works against the story’s momentum. Just when Lumet starts to build some decent tension, he cuts back, losing the suspense and replacing it with a rehash of what we’ve already seen. The story itself is not particularly original, but it does have a number of compelling character moments, thanks to strong work from Hoffman and Hawke, as well as Finney as their emotionally distant father and Tomei as Andy’s needy wife. The film’s emotional arc is too hard to grasp, though, with constant digressions and red herrings that only muddle what is ultimately a very simple tale.
Told in a straightforward manner, this could have been a serviceable if somewhat cold thriller. With its distracting structural choppiness, though, it remains only distant and unreachable, far from the visceral experience it strives to be.
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, Marisa Tomei
Directed by Sidney Lumet