Since its plot unfolds in scenes arranged out of chronological order, one can’t help but wonder why the first shot of Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead had to be the one depicting Phillip Seymour Hoffman baring his ass and thrusting atop Marisa Tomei in some of the most mechanical lovemaking ever glimpsed in a movie. Surely, the Tarantino sense of time could have spared audiences a view of Hoffman’s full moon at least until a few minutes in.
But that’s probably a superficial criticism. The question Sidney Lumet’s longtime fans should ask is why an accomplished director would bother with such an unremarkable script. Sure, it has characters in the traditional Lumet situations-trapped, for one reason or another, and then driven to their breaking points-but subtract Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead‘s plot twists and atypical-but-hardly-unconventional chronology, and the end result is a fairly simple crime drama with a predictable ending. Strapped for cash, two sons (Hoffman and Ethan Hawke) plot a robbery of their own parents’ jewelry store. The heist goes bad, and Mom gets killed. While the boys must cope with the resulting guilt, Dad (Albert Finney) grows increasingly fixated on revenge. On top of that already far-fetched family dysfunction, Tomei’s character is married to Hoffman’s, but also sleeping with Hawke’s, giving the actress little to do but be topless and cry-sometimes simultaneously.
Lumet manages to steer the film away from the kind of melodrama that would normally accompany such plotlines, but Before the Devil ultimately falls short of the return to Lumet’s glory days that some had predicted. As far as crime flicks go, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead delivers a watchable but forgettable story. Most viewers will be able to call the ending from a mile away. (Appropriate, maybe, for a film that literally begins with an obvious end.) And talented though the cast may be, they seem as trapped by their under-written roles as are their characters by their various predicaments. And that’s the real shame, because protagonists who make choices this bad could have used more development to elicit some sympathy from this audience member.