If you think a situation is as terrible as it could possibly be, there’s probably information you don’t have …which would make it even worse. That’s the moral of Sidney Lumet’s riveting new failed-heist thriller “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” a movie that brilliantly leaps backward and forward in time to fill in the blanks for the audience, letting them know that two loser brothers aren’t only plummeting in a downward spiral, they’re also hitting rocks and broken glass as they fall south.
Of course, those two brothers are played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke, so there’s a certain squirmy pleasure in watching them flirt with catastrophe. Much of the dread-inducing excitement in “Before the Devil” — and despite the characters’ misery, it’s one of the most exhilarating moviegoing experiences in a long while — comes from the many surprises in Kelly Masterson’s extraordinary script, so suffice it to say that the plot deals with the sleazy siblings deciding to knock off a jewelry store belonging to their parents (Albert Finney and Rosemary Harris). Disaster ensues.
After Tarantino’s genre-remixing “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction” inspired a legion of inferior knockoffs, two tropes that many film lovers became quite skittish about seeing combined were “heist movie” and “narrative that plays with the timeline.” But a great film can certainly vindicate genres that have been botched by lesser filmmakers.
Masterson’s structure has the story move forward, stop, and then rewind a bit to fill in some blanks that we viewers didn’t already know. And wouldn’t you know it — every time we learn a new chunk of information, it means that the on-screen goings-on are even more despicable, more desperate, more pathetic than we’d previously come to believe. It gets to where you’ll want to clutch your armrest in desperation and wail when the plot goes backward, because you’re about to learn something else that’s just terrible.
Thankfully, there’s nothing depressing or grim about this movie — watching people trapped in a hell of their own making is as entertaining in “Before the Devil” as it is in, say, “Oedipus Rex” or “Wuthering Heights.”
Helping things along are Lumet’s taut direction and a legion of terrific performances. Hoffman is the modern master of playing ambitious losers, and the film gives him ample opportunity to be the architect of his own doom. Hoffman’s Andy is also the world’s worst older brother, constantly hectoring the spineless Hank (Hawke) with taunts like “baby” and “f---ot.” (When Andy tells Hank he’s taking the majority of the proceeds from the robbery, Hank mewls, “I want more,” to which Andy snaps, “So does Oliver Twist.”)
The often-underutilized Marisa Tomei commands the screen in a relatively small part as Andy’s miserable wife, while Albert Finney, playing the distracted dad — no wonder his sons turned out to be such gems — reminds us that he’s still one of the most compelling actors to ever step in front of a camera.
“Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” won’t do much for anyone’s feelings about human nature, but it will definitely restore your faith in gritty crime movies. Don’t let this relatively little movie slip between your fingers.