An intricate tragedy that plumbs messy emotional depths with cinematic precision, “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” explores urban malaise via ingredients so timeless, an ancient Greek stumbling into the theater would recognize the building blocks of mortal folly. Filial impiety, sibling rivalry, marital distress and crippling debt bedevil protags who shop for all their decisions at Bad Choices ‘R Us. Satisfyingly draining narrative will probably skew toward older viewers, but the wrenching tale has something for anyone who likes their melodrama spiked with palpable tension and genuine suspense.
Recounted via out-of-sequence episodes with chapter headings, the action deconstructs the four days before — as well as the week after — the botched robbery of a mom-and-pop jewelry store. From this comparatively small fulcrum, pic enters a vortex that sucks protags in with irreversible force.
Mining the twin veins of family ties and the American pursuit of the almighty dollar, director Sidney Lumet gives his wisely chosen cast plentiful opportunities to act up a dark, brooding storm. Narrative’s escalating tally of sordid maneuvers and desperate acts may seem unlikely to some, but Lumet’s “Find Me Guilty” (2006) was in many ways more of a stretch than anything here (and that was based on a true story).
In the 1957 debut by Lumet, now 83, only 12 men were “angry” — here, it’s hard to find a character who would recognize serenity if it rang their Westchester or Manhattan doorbell.
Pic starts with chubby but robust Andy Hanson (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the payroll manager for a large New York real estate firm, coupling with gusto with his shapely wife, Gina (Marisa Tomei). Their postcoital chat reveals they’re in Rio, and they’re both stunned at the quality of sensation they’ve just shared, since life back in Gotham is apparently unsatisfying in and out of the bedroom.
Onscreen title then switches to “The Day of the Robbery.” Two men drive up to a small jewelry store for what should be a cinch of a heist. But several things go lethally awry: Shots are fired and the driver screeches off in panic and dismay.
Connections between the characters are doled out with teasing artistry as the ramifications of their actions reverberate. The driver, we learn, is Hank (Ethan Hawke), a likable loser with a shrewish ex-wife (Amy Ryan) and cute daughter. Hank owes three months’ child support and holds an undistinguished job compared to his older brother, Andy.
Hank and Gina are having an affair, unbeknownst to Andy, whose own secret life actually outdoes his little brother’s. The dynamic between the siblings is rife with unresolved resentment; their parents (Rosemary Harris and Albert Finney) have a loving partnership, but don’t seem to have imparted much spontaneity or warmth to Andy, the eldest of their three children.
From wives to ex-wives to girlfriends to secretaries, femmes try to aid or shield the men around them, only to find their efforts pretty much ignored or rebuffed. On the basis of this pic, it’s not easy — or much fun — to be an American man. Playwright and first-time screenwriter Kelly Masterson incorporates several original twists and sardonic lines (upon being told her late hubby enlisted a pal with a credit card to rent a car for him, his street-smart widow immediately detects a lie, retorting that if he’d wanted a car, he would have stolen one).
The camera probes perfectly designed locations with assertive, communicative lensing. Lumet is unafraid to employ flashy film grammar as events cross-pollinate in sometimes shocking ways. Vet helmer makes human distress as compelling as the most lurid horror pic or special-effects extravaganza, and the film exudes a claustrophobic quality as characters struggle to buy time with dwindling currency.
Lead thesps are outstanding across the board, with excellent support in smaller roles.
Lumet atones for 1992’s rocky “A Stranger Among Us” in a few terse scenes with an elderly diamond dealer, to whom key characters come for practical and/or shattering information.
Title comes from the Irish toast: “May you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you’re dead.”