It’s very impressive that a director can start making movies in the late 1950s - with the classic 12 Angry Man, as his very first I might add, - and 50 years on can make something as high in quality as Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead. It’s a true testament for sticking to something you’re good at for as long as you can and Lumet’s dedication and experience serves him extremely well.
When two brothers, played by Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman respectably, organize the robbery of their parent’s jewelery store things go horrible wrong. This triggers a series of events that will change the lives of everyone involved.
Taken from an Irish saying, “May you be in heaven a full half hour before the devil knows you’re dead,” the film’s title sums up the whole thing perfectly. It takes a fairly generic crime story and effectively flips it on its head adding in a back-and-forth-in-time mentality to tell us what happens and explores the complicated lives of the characters in as much depth as anyone could hope for from a film. Stemming from this robbery storyline we get all sorts of complex issues that are delved into such as loyalty, family value, betrayal, love, and getting one’s life into order. These are all things that inevitably affect everyone in one form or another at some point but we see particularly the latter come into play.
Hoffman is fantastic as the brother who sets this whole robbery plan up and who gets a sympathetic Ethan Hawke as his brother to unwillingly come in with him on it. He’s very much opposed to this plan once he finds out it’s his own parents store that will be “knocked off”, as Hoffman’s character puts it so very boldly at one point, but soon the temptation of his money worries being solved gets too much for him. The audience will be on one side or the other; to resist but admit they’d be tempted or be the one who takes control. But either way it’s clear this isn’t going to do anyone any good and the film explores this in a very thorough and satisfying fashion.