Before the Devil Knows You're Dead & r & & r & by LUKE BAUMGARTEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & E & lt;/span & arly in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, a man wearing a ski mask walks into a jewelry store minutes before opening, flashes a gun, bumbles around trying to take loot out of safes and the register.
Already keyed up, when he can't find the key to the display cases, he begins flailing about, slamming the pistol butt against the glass in an attempt to break it. The woman at the counter (Rosemary Harris), frail and afraid, uses the robber's bumbling to inch toward a concealed pistol, determinedly raise it and shoot him in the back.
The resolve she had before firing quickly dissolves into a kind of crazed disbelief and sorrow. Before she was able to act. Now she seems frozen. As the robber rolls over, gun still in hand, her disbelief turns to terror. Two more shots ring out: one that rips through her guts and a second, perhaps a minute later, that sends the thug flying through the store's glass door.
Hearing the shots, the robber's accomplice speeds away. Cheaply disguised in a mop-top and mustache, he screams shrilly as he claws at the wig and facial hair. At first it seems as though he's grieving the thug friend who's just died. When he finally tears the disguise away, though, revealing a face (Ethan Hawke's) contorted in a mix of disbelief and terror uncannily close to that of the woman behind the counter, we realize there's much more going on than a simple suburban heist.
Director Sydney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network) has always been able to pull beautiful performances from his actors, even those with small roles. Harris' brief turn on screen is proof of that, as is Hawke's coming apart slowly, erratically. We learn quickly that the jewelry store was his parents' place.
It's a harrowing, bloody introduction to what will mostly be a slow, time-hopping psychological drama. Hawke's character Hank and his brother Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) planned the job because they're both failures. Strapped for cash, Andy propositions his brother to knock off the store, fencing the jewels if Hank can just steal them. Behind on alimony, Hank reluctantly agrees, but brings in the thug at the last minute because, well, because he's a coward and because he's never been much good at taking responsibility.
Andy's cross is the opposite. Dogged by his father Charles (a waxen, wraithlike Albert Finney) his whole life, Andy is obsessed with winning, working his ass off for a big apartment, a six-figure income, a trophy wife (Marisa Tomei, adorable and tragic). At this point, all he wants is out.
Hoffman and Hawke both give riveting performances, and though one or both of them are onscreen for the majority of the film, the sons' deeds in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead are born from the sins of their father. The story ultimately spins back to Charles. Lumet and screenwriter Kelly Masterson are careful to save the meat of Charles' narrative, in stuttering, atemporal fashion, for the end.
The film hangs on how the father ultimately deals with the realization that his sons perpetrated the heist -- whether he chooses vengeance or forgiveness, the same old path that destroyed his sons or a new one. On that score, unfortunately, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead blows its d & eacute;nouement as badly as its characters have screwed up their lives. (Rated R)