Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is a sourpuss version of a Coen Brothers movie. Sidney Lumet uses the Coens' most frequent story template: A crime is committed, leaving characters to contend with unforeseen consequences. But Lumet doesn't replicate the way the Coens' idiosyncrasies and moral inquiry keep viewers concerned. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead invites judgment of its characters. It looks upon its subjects with disdain, while having the nerve to pretend it portrays a universal truth of middle-class corruption.
If you're going to commend this insult from Hollywood royalty like Lumet (87 percent of critics have), at least question the value of watching people fall, after being set up like dominoes. Lumet could be excused for thinking his nihilism was profound if he were 22. Since he's 83, it's just evil.
So what if the film's well acted? Performances by Philip Seymour Hoffmann and Ethan Hawke made critics call this nastiness legit. There's credibility in their roles as brothers on the brink of collapse. Hoffmann is Andy, a conniving payroll manager who pays little attention to the needs of his naked wife (Marisa Tomei). Hawke is just as immersed in the part of wimpering, nervous younger sibling Hank. At Andy's suggestion, the pair rob their parents' New York jewellery store, thinking insurance will cover the loss. Things go very wrong.
Lumet uses a fractured timeline to jump before and after the robbery. The leaps serve so little, it's questionable why he doesn't tell the story straight.
Intertwining cuts at scene transitions bring to mind Easy Rider, but Lumet's evocation of '70s films doesn't help Before the Devil Knows You're Dead hold up to the director's own period classics: Network, Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico. It's a shockingly regressive picture.
A final scene, taking place in a hospital, has a refreshing, difficult truth to it. And then, Lumet and screenwriter Kelly Masterson turn it around, making it the most artificial, wrong moment in the whole film. Their hopelessness is hopeless. After all, what good is a Coen movie without a soul?