Family tensions run high throughout Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. Brothers argue, parents and children resent each other, spouses cheat. At its best, 83-year-old Sidney Lumet’s latest movie reflects all this torment and rage in its fractured form and taut, sometimes jarring performances. The two brothers at its center are so irate at the perceived unfairness of their lives, neither can imagine a way to respond that doesn’t involve destruction—of others and themselves. As the movie captures their descent into meanness and despair, they look increasingly unhinged and pathetic.
That’s not to say you pity them. In fact, the brothers’ increasing abjection, their utter lack of appeal is the film’s most striking aspect. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead never makes a play for your sympathy. It does, however, provide a sometimes too-clever chart of desolation and selfishness, cutting back and forth in time, so that you come to see motives and consequences gradually, piecing together characters as they come, too late, to understand themselves. Still, even as the form is compelling and the edge noteworthy, the film never quite finds its way out of its own melodramatic formula, in which men clash and compete while women suffer.
The movie begins with a startling image: Philip Seymour Hoffman watching himself astride a woman’s behind. The situation is this: seeking to recover their youthful, if superficial appreciation of one another, Andy (Hoffman) and his arduously toned wife Gina (Marisa Tomei) are on vacation in Brazil. Sweating and sexing in their exotic hotel room (equipped with mirrors on all walls), they exult in their strained performative abandon, telling each other that if only they could escape their New York lives forever, they’d be happy. But the mirrors show right away that such thinking is delusional: Andy observes and reinvents himself, pretending he’s powerful, desirable, and oh so sensuous.
Of course, he is not. This much is demonstrated in the film’s next scene, a cut forward in time to “The Day of the Robbery,” Andy’s decidedly un-brilliant scheme to make his fantasy getaway feasible. Because he sees himself as above such dirty work, he convinces his younger, more earnest and less clever brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) to carry out the deed—stealing from their parents’ jewelry store. The crime goes very badly, leaving a masked accomplice dead, Andy and Hank’s mother Nanette (Rosemary Harris) in a coma, and Hank in a complete panic, screeching his rental car out of the suburban mall parking loot while cursing his brother’s name. Slam-bammy camerawork and tight close-ups of Hank’s horrified face suggest the chaos he has committed and also feels.
The rest of Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead provides sketchy and somewhat predictable context for each brother: while Andy fears losing Gina (rightly so, as she’s having an affair, managed in lunchtime assignations in a hotel room with just enough light to emphasize her naked breasts) and Hank is desperately behind on child payments (“I need money,” he says flatly, and more than once). At the same time, they must put on a show for their distraught father Charles (Albert Finney), while their mother lies dying in the hospital. The fact that Charles has been cruel and distant during their childhoods emerges gradually: in one especially unsettling scene, Gina watches from Charles and Nanette’s kitchen window as her husband and his father sit at an old picnic bench, neither looking at the other, both seething with resentment and disappointment. “I’m sorry I wasn’t able to be the kind of father you wanted,” mumbles Charles by way of non-explanation. “But I guess I wanted you to be better than me.” Andy complains in turn, “I never felt like I was part of the club,” because in his mind Hank was prettier and ever favored. No matter what one says, the other can only hear lack—of affection or approval, even acknowledgment.
While Andy is essentially blinded by his unresolvable fury at Charles, a history that will never be over for him, Hank stews in his current circumstance, befuddled and afraid. Andy seeks refuge in an upscale heroin “den,” where the pale, silk-gowned Justin (Blaine Horton) greets him at the door with a gun, then prepares and injects needles of heroin, a fix with a veneer of “class.” (It’s not a little tiresome that such wretchedness is hosted and coded by this visibly gay boy, who’s only bored by his client’s faux philosophical lament: “I’m not the sum of my parts. All of my parts don’t add up to one me, I think.” Justin, blurred in the background, snaps, “Get a shrink or a wife.” Andy has both.) Hank’s vices are more mundane, less effete: he heads to the nearest bar and gets smashed, annoying the hell out of Andy, who believes Hank may spill the beans about their part in the robbery.
Each brother sinks into doubts and disappointments. Hank sees himself as the “loser” his daughter sees in him; Andy imagines Gina might stay with him, or not; in the end her rejection is just what he expects. Andy can’t find a dark enough hole in which to disappear. And Hank, making one bad decision after another, discovers (or maybe has reaffirmed for him) that he will never be as rich or as miserable as the older brother he both fears and sadly admires.
Always complicated and sometimes bizarre, Andy and Hank’s gnarly relationship creates a compelling puzzle. But the women around them tend to fall by the wayside, serving more as evidence of their men’s failures than as characters with their own lives—or deaths. Even Nanette’s passing becomes an occasion for the boys to argue and flail about. As reckless and forlorn as the brothers and their father may be, it’s plainly worse for the women who come anywhere near them.