Robustly directed from Kelly Masterson's bear-trap screenplay and lit up with a number of live-wire performances, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead opens with a happy couple making love like porn stars — the big surprise is that they're married ... to each other! — and a bungled stickup in a suburban jewelry store. Going wrong in half a dozen crucial ways, the holdup leaves the perp dead, an elderly woman dying and the putative getaway car speeding into the Westchester morning. That the sex act has engendered the robbery will only gradually become apparent. By the time the action flashes back three days to the preparations for the crime, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead has already established itself as the story of a disaster.
Hank (Ethan Hawke) is a deadbeat dad, perpetually behind in his child-support payments and regularly browbeaten by his singularly vindictive ex-wife (Amy Ryan in an effectively soul-crushing performance). Indeed, it seems to be the money his young daughter needs for a class outing to see The Lion King that pushes hapless Hank into joining his smooth-talking older brother, Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman), in a scheme to rob their parents' store. To add to the familial intrigue, Hank is carrying on an affair with Andy's restless trophy wife, Gina (Marisa Tomei, a purring sex machine or a scared bystander, as the script requires).
Hawke's need to ingratiate himself as an actor usefully informs his characters; he makes an excellent baby brother, frisky pup and appealing nitwit, someone whose moist smile and frightened eyes are impossible to resist. Hoffman uses his bulk as a form of authority and a bulwark against the world; Andy is a dead-voiced, doughy mass of repressed rage who needs money to feed his drug habit and escape an embezzlement charge that's hanging over his head. Smacked out in a luxury shooting gallery, he tells the proprietor: "All my parts don't add up."
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead pivots on the relationship between these two unlikely brothers — the manipulative elder and weak-willed younger. (Making them siblings rather than friends was Lumet's contribution to the scenario.) Adding to the rivalry is Andy's hatred for his father, Charlie, played by Albert Finney. Sitting with his comatose wife (Rosemary Harris), Dad suggests a fish gasping for breath. This is a movie with a surplus of agonized male grimacing. There are some scenes in which Hawke's face is contorted beyond recognition and others in which he and Hoffman seem on the verge of upchucking from the stress. Indeed, Hoffman has a series of crazed one-on-ones, with Finney and Tomei as well as Hawke, that nearly justifies the movie's grueling denouement.
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead doesn't always compute, but there's little chance to complain. Even as the shuffled chronology adds to the angst, it's the location of murderous violence within a single family that pushes the action toward Greek tragedy. The movie grabs hold and runs you through the wringer. Shot like a bleary morning after, full of powerhouse scenes and over-the-top situations in nondescript locales, it's a pulverizing experience. As a reptilian old 47th Street fence tells the bereaved Charlie: "The world is an evil place."