Sidney Lumet, now 83 and owner of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Oscars, has defied age and expectation to make one of the greatest films of his long career. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead uses a botched robbery as a springboard into a family tragedy that invokes the shades of Arthur Miller and Eugene O'Neill.
It concerns a real-estate accountant Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who persuades his younger brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) to help in a plan to knock over a "mom-and-pop" jewellery store in sleepy Westchester – the twist being that it's their mom and pop's jewellery store. It's the perfect victimless crime, according to Andy, because there's minimal security and their parents can recover the loss from the insurance company. Naturally, the plan goes wrong.
Lumet, working from a first-time script by Kelly Masterson, directs with the vigour and attention to detail of a much younger man. The time-frame is interestingly fractured, so that we see the failed robbery first, then follow it through a shuffle of flashbacks and switched perspectives that include both brothers and their stern father (Albert Finney, another old geezer showing some twilight class). Yet what becomes even more compelling is the shabby, debt-ridden, circumstances in which the siblings languish; Andy, despite his high-end lifestyle, has a raging drug habit to feed, while Hank is such a hopeless case that he can't keep up the alimony to his ex or even pay for a school outing to The Lion King. I can't think of another recent movie that so subtly describes the American middle-class dread of being poor.
Hoffman and Hawke don't really look like kin but they absolutely convince us of their antagonism for another, the former's volcanic resentment locked in a terminal struggle with the latter's whipped-cur shiftiness. Marisa Tomei is also terrific as Andy's faithless, and quite often bra-less, wife. What starts out as a commonplace thriller has, by its close, turned into a desolate account of failure – the failure of a family's love and, deeper, of our old friend the American Dream.