Death to the gimmick movie. “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” has a compelling story at its core, but instead of simply telling the story, director Sidney Lumet decides to get cute by repeatedly rewinding the story to show the action from another character’s perspective. That’s a nifty idea on paper, but the problem is that the new angles reveal nothing the viewer didn’t already know, which renders the exercise both redundant and pointless.
Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as Andy, a debt-ridden payroll supervisor who pitches a get-rich-quick scheme to his equally destitute younger brother Hank (Ethan Hawke): knock off their parents’ jewelry store. Hank, unsure if he has the guts to follow through with the job, brings in Dex (Michael Shannon) to be the muscle, but the job goes horribly wrong when Andy and Hank’s mother Nanette (Rosemary Harris), who was not supposed to be working that day, engages Dex in gunfire and both end up dead. The boys’ father Charles (Albert Finney) is devastated and, when the police prove to be of no use, vows revenge, unaware that he is hunting down his own sons. Further complicating the issue is Gina (Marisa Tomei), who is married to Andy but is sleeping with Hank.
You can see the potential in everything. On one end, you have a loveless marriage; on the other, you have a couple very much in love but torn apart by tragedy. There is a heist gone wrong. There is a resentful older brother who bullies his weak younger brother into doing his bidding, unaware that by doing so, he has just undone his foolproof plan. And in the middle of all of this are Marisa Tomei’s bare breasts, which get almost as much screen time as Albert Finney. And fine though they may be, there is no need to see so much of them, except to see them. (Here’s hoping she got a Halle Berry-style payday for her troubles.) The sound was out during the opening sex scene between Hoffman and Tomei, which led me to believe, once I saw Tomei with Hawke in a later scene, that Tomei was not Hoffman’s wife but a hooker.
Had the story been told in linear fashion, you had the makings of a taut 85-minute thriller, but instead we get a drawn-out melodrama hogtied by a “hook.” However, even if the movie had been told in a more direct manner, it still would have fallen apart in the end; Hoffman’s character inexplicably transforms from a hopeless fuck-up to a cold-blooded sociopath, and the police are unable to solve the crime despite the fact that Hank practically left a trail of bread crumbs for them to follow. Indeed, there isn’t a single good decision made by anyone in the entire movie. It’s difficult to feel anything but frustration or pity after a while.
“Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” brims with possibility, but very little of it actually works, from the casting – Hoffman as Finney’s son, yes; Hawke, not a chance in hell – to the script, to the acting, to the confounded decision to keep hitting rewind on the plot. If we had our way, we’d reconvene the cast (replacing Hawke with Ewan McGregor) and put David Mamet in charge. Now that would be a “Devil” worth knowing.(2 / 5)