Watching Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is a little like playing a high-stakes game of cards. We know things the characters don't know. They know things we don't know. They know things that the other characters don't know. No one knows everything that's going on. Watching the film isn't so much ingesting images as laying cards on the table. So you'll be excused if you wear your Ray-Bans into the theater.
This New York family heist caper, directed by octogenarian Sidney Lumet, shows both modern and classic impulses. With its bumbling loser crooks, its twisting narrative and dazzling charade of editing and storytelling, this may be the first ode to the peak of 1990s indie filmmaking.
But in Lumet's hands it also becomes a compendium of New York filmmaking, paying homage to older cinematic visions of the city. It's like something out of the forties and fifties - a New York of petty criminals, family jewelry stores, and street-level bustle. Often, filmmakers are seduced by the Big Apple's biggest apples. Lumet is still in love with the smaller secrets.
At the core of the story are two brothers, Andy and Hank Hanson (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke), each one a bit of a nincompoop. Andy has worked his way up to a payroll executive to grasp a little bit of success. Daniel, on the other hand, struggles for every dollar to pay rent and child support. Both men have money issues that are about to eat them alive.
To get out of the situation, Andy thinks up an airtight plan. They (or at least his brother) will knock off a jewelry store, and, for a certain reason I won't reveal, the two men will never be suspected. Naturally, the airtight plan goes the way of most cinematic airtight plans. Things break down. Someone ends up dead. The fallout opens old and new family wounds. Soon, the brothers are just trying to keep their lives.
Others have filmed New York, but few so openly and lovingly as Lumet, with his sense for symmetry and space on the broadest streets and the tightest shops. The film practically leaks fine performances, with Hawke's hapless loser, Tomei's m ix of quiet suffering and longing, and the way Albert Finney's eyes seem like they're about to boil out of the lids. Hoffman takes the cake with his unscrupulous and secretive moneyhandler, who isn't quite as far ahead of everyone else as he thinks.
While it's strong in style, place, and character, the film somewhat lacks in substance. While it presents some basic moral dilemmas and has a hammer-headed approach, it doesn't have much to say. It's not really a film about anything. Still, the sharpness of the performances, the skilled of the direction, and the daring of the script make it more than pleasant to watch.