The foolproof crime gone awry is one of the most enduring premises in storytelling, and for good reason. Relatively few of us may actually plan a heist, be it an embezzlement or a bank robbery, but there's hardly an unblemished soul who hasn't contemplated an opportunity or spent a few moments idly fantasizing about one. The reason most of us don't actually go through with it is because we know it's stupid. So the chance to witness those citizens, daring or foolish by turns, act on such fantasies is, obviously, an intoxicating vicarious prospect.
Enter Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke) in director Sidney Lumet's "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," a story about brothers who decide to rob their parents' mom-and-pop jewelry store. Andy and Hank get caught up in the giddy expectation of easy money, sweat profusely during the deed and its immediate aftermath, and then everything goes to hell. So too, ironically, goes the movie.
Andy and Hank are both more and less brothers. We can tell they come from the close quarters of a dysfunctional childhood, which has caused a degree of indifference in later life. They both work at the same firm, involved with brokerages or mortgages or some such business, but Andy, the elder, whiles away the hours leaning back in his comfortable office, while Hank sails the tempestuous cubicle seas.
Lumet, working from a screenplay by Kelly Masterson, doesn't need a lot of dialogue to tell us that the two are unhappy with their hand of cards. Andy keeps a tray of cocaine in his desk drawer and visits a heroin retreat in the city whenever he has a particularly stressful day. Hank unwinds by sleeping with Andy's trophy wife (Marisa Tomei). Brotherly love never looked so unsavory.
The only other tie that binds them is one universal among men: a need for cash. Hank owes people, and Andy needs freedom funds to bail after a brief career as a casual embezzler. It doesn't take a long talk in Andy's office to convince Hank to go along with his scheme, even before he knows what it is. The crime looks easy. Both men worked for years in their parents' store. It's rural and has almost no security, and the parents won't even be there on the Saturday morning planned for the job. What could go wrong? Everything, of course -- including the accidental shooting death of mom, who shows up to work despite her schedule.
If you think that's giving away too much of the plot, don't worry. "Devil" is not arranged in the straightforward fashion recounted here, but chopped up and put back together in unconventional order. We see mom get it in the guts right away, with the end game backtracking through the main characters' individual perspectives. The technique is nothing new, but for the most part it's effective. The only exception is the inclusion of dad (Albert Finney) and his particularly sorrowful point of view. It's meant to add an extra layer of pathos, and Finney is game, but his deep sighs and angry attempts to find the "punks" who did it is more of a distraction than intended.
The device Lumet uses to jump between perspectives a quick series of cuts set to a jagged drum roll doesn't help. If you stumble late into the theater at the wrong moment, you might think Finney is about to intro a hip-hop video.
"Devil" is quickly paced, but its editing style both hides and exacerbates certain problems. For one thing, there's little thrill in the story because we know from the beginning what's going to happen. The drama, then, is in the characters' shady lives, which begin to lose their fascination as the movie progresses, sinking into various pitfalls of disbelief. Why, for instance, with a satchel full of $100 bills and a plane ticket to Rio, would you bother trying to kill a small-time blackmailing thug who doesn't even know who you are?
"Devil," full of intense heat for the first half, has enough inconsistencies and question marks trickling in at the end to eventually dampen the mood. Though armed with more promise than its characters, the move gets tripped up whenever it reaches beyond its humble means. All you can say is that nothing is foolproof, even a simple, reliable premise. (R) 116 min. S