Pitch black family drama about two loser brothers (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke) who, both in desperate need of money, agree on Hoffman's plan to pull off a simple heist of a suburban jewelry store - a store owned and operated by their own parents. As we quickly find out, the robbery goes horribly wrong, and the brothers and their father (Albert Finney) deal with the gruesome consequences and the family wounds it opens up.
This film has been getting a lot of praise mainly because its legendary director Sidney Lumet, at 83, has finally cranked out his first decent picture since - well, people disagree, but it could be 1997's Night Falls on Manhattan, 1988's Running on Empty, or even 1982's The Verdict. In any case, it's been a long time since the veteran director - who helmed such classics as 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, and Network - had a critical or commercial hit. So people are treating him like royalty for simply being able to make something fresh and good. Even so, there are parts of Before the Devil that feel a little outdated: Lumet uses the old zoom lens in creaky ways, and the device with which the story moves backwards and forwards in time - this is a highly non-chronological narrative - isn't exactly subtle, with its sound effects and fast edits. But some people might like it.
Anyway, a small-scale movie like this depends strongly on its cast (just as most of Lumet's other features, which is why some are towering achievements and others are embarrassing misfires), and Lumet's chosen well, though their performances vary in quality. Hoffman is pretty great, if not revelatory. Same with Finney. Marisa Tomei is good but, as usual, underused. (She performs topless in seemingly half her scenes, however, as if mainly to show that her 42-year-old body is holding up really, really well.) The low point, for me, is Hawke. It's easy to bash the guy, though I usually like his onscreen work. But his decision to make his character excessively nervous and fidgety quickly wore out its welcome with me. I found his shtick distracting, even annoying.
While I will say that Before the Devil Knows Your Dead is probably overrated and won't stand up as one of Lumet's best-remembered works, it's still a decent B movie, with rich if unlikable characters and an engaging plot. Credit is also due to debut screenwriter Kelly Masterson's fine script.