Sidney Lumet‘s "Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead" is a robbery-gone-wrong thriller that’s heavy on the wrong. The crime’s a petty one, the clumsy hold-up of a suburban strip mall jewelry store that leaves someone dead, someone else seriously injured, and someone â€” Hank (Ethan Hawke) â€” peeling out of the parking lot, completely panicked. From there the film leaps back and forth in time and to different POVs at the behest of an odd little effect perhaps meant to recall the act of shattering, and as we study the events from different angles, we get a better understanding of the extent to which things have spectacularly gone to shit, that the store belongs to Hank’s parents, that Hank set out to rob it in partnership with his brother Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and that the one hurt is their mother (Rosemary Harris).
The screenplay, the first from playwright Kelly Masterson, is a showy little thing with its puzzle box structure and its ponderous themes of manhood, of fathers and sons. Lumet knows his way around crime and repercussions, and does his best to ground the story by setting it in an unpretty version of New York from which the suburbs trail out like the untidy backstage of a theater. Then he turns things over to his actors, one of whom is, fortunately, Hoffman, who works wonders as the supposedly successful son nursing daddy issues, ample self-loathing and dual drug habits. In a film in which every character is revealed to be more and more unpleasant, he actually gathers sympathy as his world begins to crumble. Hawke does less well as the lifelong fuckup whose finances are at the mercy of his castrating harpy of an ex, and Marisa Tomei appears in the thankless but often unclothed role of Andy’s trophy wife Gina, a girl who pines for her husband’s attention but is in the meanwhile happy to take his cash. It’s all dark, dreary and pretty captivating until the blood-soaked conclusion, in which the story goes off the deep end and takes any sense of engagement we had with it.
"Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead" screens October 12 at 6pm and October 13 at 12:45pm at at Frederick P. Rose Hall. It opens October 26th in limited release from ThinkFilm.