Eighty-three-year-old director Sidney Lumet is a genuine American Master — his career includes classic live television dramas of the 1950s as well as such outstanding, naturalistic cinematic investigations of ethical conduct under duress as 1957's 12 Angry Men, 1964's The Pawnbroker, 1973's Serpico and 1981's Prince of the City.
Yet his work of the past 10 years has been a minor footnote to his achievements — Sharon Stone's remake of Gloria, Night Falls on Manhattan, Find Me Guilty. When he received a 2005 Honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement, it seemed a given that Lumet's best work was behind him.
So much for assumptions. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is among his best work — a ferociously unsentimental look at how easily life can become terrible, especially when one puts ambition ahead of ethical conduct and morality. Tightly, smartly written by playwright Kelly Masterson and propelled by an ominously melancholy Carter Burwell score, it is a cautionary tale with the tough, haunting power of Greek tragedy and the grittiness of film noir.
It's also cleverly constructed, with a bitterly just and black-pitched ending, and filled with fine acting. It's about two New York adult brothers named Hanson — Philip Seymour Hoffman's Andy and Ethan Hawke's Hank — who plan a robbery of their parents' Westchester County jewelry store that turns unexpectedly violent.
How it went wrong has something to do with Andy's hubris in believing it wouldn't — he figured it'd unfold safely and insurance would cover the loss. And it has something to do with Hank being the kind of weak-brother screw-up who can't do anything right.
Instead of committing the crime on his own, for instance, Hank hires an irritable Jersey hothead named Bobby (Brian O'Byrne) to do the dirty work.
Lumet's structure is fragmented so the truths about how and why the robbery failed play out through an abruptly shifting yet uncomplicated flashback structure. It's Rashomon-like in that it replays crucial events from different viewpoints.
Lumet, old man though he might be, is not timid about sexuality and nudity. The film opens with a married couple — Hoffman and Marisa Tomei as his wife Gina — engaged in some provocatively graphic sex while on vacation in Brazil. As it emerges from their subsequent post-coital discussion, they would like to renew themselves and start over, maybe even move to Brazil. Maybe that's where the idea of the robbery comes from; maybe the sex makes Andy want to live dangerously and not get old and boring.
Hoffman's Andy, a slick and controlling corporate payroll officer, is slyness spilling over into sliminess. Seemingly middle-class but easily corruptible, he can manipulate his insecure younger brother Hank in all ways but one — Hank is having a secret affair with Gina. Hoffman is terrific here, his few big outbursts never showy, and the too-often too-passive Hawke finds his inner soul as a desperately scared, frightened man who might be pathetic but whose heart hasn't yet turned to stone.
The brothers' father Charles is, too, a towering, controlling figure who views Hank as a "baby," but in a protective way. Albert Finney plays him like a battlefield general who is mortally wounded but not ready to die despite the pain. His confusion and anger about what happened at the robbery is simultaneously brave and pathetic. And his sorrow makes him unpredictable. The dynamic between Finney and Hoffman recalls James Coburn and Nick Nolte in Affliction.
Tomei, who plays quite a few scenes semi-nude, might just be too beautiful to be convincing when her Gina worries that beefy Andy doesn't find her attractive anymore. But while her character's low self-esteem is a stretch given the actress' physical attributes, Tomei's willingness to buy into it and give her all is impressive.
The title, explained in the opening credits, comes from an old saying: "May you be in heaven for half an hour before the devil knows you're dead." It's more curse than benediction. To underscore that, a memorable character played by Leonard Cimino — a crooked, wizened diamond dealer — adds this observation to Charles: "The world is an evil place. Some of us make money off it, others are destroyed by it."
Words to remember from a film that will also be remembered. Grade: A