Joining a growing list of octogenarians who continue to work with energy and imagination, Sidney Lumet has been making the rounds of the fall festivals promoting his latest effort, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, a movie as gritty and shocking as anything he has done in his remarkable career. The four-time Oscar nominee, honored by the Academy in 2005 for lifetime achievement, seems determined to prove that award premature. For his 45th film, the indefatigable director chose a script with an exacting challenge: Keep an audience interested in characters so corrupt and degenerate they defy credulity.

The story, set in Manhattan and told through syncopated flashbacks paralleling the narrative, concerns two brothers, Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke), whose lives have gone spectacularly wrong. Both men are desperate for money, Andy to maintain his shallow but sexy wife (Marisa Tomei), Hank to meet child-support payments. They have other problems as well, fueled by a variety of vices, addictions and compulsions…first-time screenwriter Kelly Masterson has distilled our culture’s worst qualities into these miserable siblings.

Andy, however, has devised a foolproof scheme to end their money worries—rob a mom-and-pop jewelry store in a suburban mall in Westchester County. Neither he nor Hank is a thief, cheating and embezzlement aside, but the heist would be an inside job…because the store is owned by the brothers’ parents (Albert Finney and Rosemary Harris). Putting issues of impropriety aside, the plan has advantages: The brothers know the layout of the shop, the habits of its proprietors, location of keys and alarms. And their parents could collect insurance on the stolen goods, Andy points out. The crime would be victimless.

But it isn’t. Pusillanimous Hank enlists one of his alcoholic buddies (Brian F. O’Byrne) to help him pull the job, not realizing he’s packed heat. The bungled holdup devolves into gunplay, and two people are killed—including the brothers’ mother, unexpectedly opening the store on the morning of the robbery.
Hoffman and Hawke are mesmerizing as the matricidal mopes, playing against type at Lumet’s suggestion, reinforcing the filmmaker’s reputation as an actors’ director. The performers relish the opportunity to exercise their theatrical chops—despite its violence and carnality, the movie is well-suited for an intimate playhouse—and Hoffman, as he showed in the underrated Owning Mahowny, evokes genteel despair with the same finesse as Hawke does craven remorse. The co-stars’ lack of resemblance conveniently underscores the differences between the brothers’ temperaments, a factor that looms large as ancient resentments collide with fresh betrayals.

For all its skillful stagecraft and dramaturgy, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is basically a soap opera (“There’s nothing like good melodrama,” quoth Lumet), although its unrelenting perversity will leave a lot of viewers in quest of a cleansing shower. There are so many self-absorbed, self-destructive characters in the film you’d think the director was Mexican. At age 83, Lumet appears more than capable of keeping up with the new wave of filmmakers led by Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro.