Before The Devil Knows You're Dead Review

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Two brothers plan a heist of their parents' jewellery store. But as crimes like these tend to do, things go horribly, homicidally wrong, and no one is left unharmed – including one of the brothers’ wives.


Sidney Lumet received his Honorary Oscar two years ago, and should therefore have had the decency to retire and bask in the glow of past glories. Except that the now 84 year-old has no such plans: the director of 12 Angry Men, Serpico and The Verdict is not only still working, he’s doing some of his best work, as this bleak, almost Shakespearean tragedy conclusively proves.

The script, by veteran playwright and debutant screenwriter Masterson, is an intricate affair, retelling events to build a three-dimensional sculpture of the crime – the robbery of a “mom and pop” jewellery store by the two sons of the mom and pop concerned. And delivering a script that flirts with but never succumbs to melodrama is a cast that scarcely puts a foot wrong.

Philip Seymour Hoffman, in another of his three near-flawless performances this month, is the confident older brother whose big career and trophy-wife mask dark secrets. It’s a layered portrayal of a character poised halfway between tragic hero and sneering villain.

Ethan Hawke, dialled back and nerdish, is the unsuccessful younger son, scrabbling to find child support for his daughter and displaying a boyish glee in the trappings of crime. Marisa Tomei is surprisingly touching as Hoffman’s wife and Hawke’s lover, turning what could have been a slut role into the most sympathetic character in the film, and Albert Finney is heartbreaking as the paterfamilias who is left to deal with the aftermath of his sons’ scheme.

There are hints of awards-baiting Acting with a capital A in a few instants, but this is a classical tragedy in a modern setting, each character’s failings coming back to haunt them in the worst possible way.

Bleak, brutal and quite possibly brilliant, this is a triumphant return to form for Lumet and further proof that Hoffman is on an incredible winning streak.