The title of Sidney Lumet's emotionally hyper-charged melodrama is taken from an old Irish toast - "may you be in heaven half an hour before the Devil knows you're dead" - the point being that few of our souls would come up spotless if examined by Old Nick anxious to book us a sun-lounger by the lake of fire. It's certainly a meeting that brothers Hank and Andy (Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman) are desperate to avoid. It's difficult to imagine a pair of more morally degenerate characters, and watching their gradual unravelling is Before The Devil's chief pleasure.
Both siblings have money problems and their neat solution is to plan a heist on a 'mom and pop' jewelry store. The sting is that the mom and pop in question are their own. In the grand tradition of heist movies their plan unravels with all the speed of a Network Rail Engineering project. Andy subcontracts the job of the heist itself to Hank who, unable to face it, subcontracts it to an even more inept work colleague. The results are predictably violent and chaotic. With the corpse of their mother on their hands, if not their consciences, the two embark on an ever more desperate quest to evade retribution as Lumet turns up the heat on the whole tragic stew.
"SEYMOUR HOFFMAN SHINES"
Judged against Lumet's masterpieces this is middling and he engages in some tricksy editing and a overly complicated and finally irritating flashback/forward structure. But the great strength of Before The Devil... is in its finely calibrated pair of central performances. Seymour Hoffman is already rightly reckoned to be one of American cinema's great newish talents, and here he shines as a repressed volcano of rage. Ethan Hawke deftly sketches Hank, the nearest thing to a likable character, as a terrified idiot who might be lovable if it wasn't for his willingness to be talked into armed robbery. The support is equally classy with Albert Finney delivering a performance of such increasing boggle-eyed intensity you worry for his health. It might all verge on the overcooked occasionally, but deeply satisfying nonetheless.
Before The Devil Knows You're Dead is out in the UK on 11th January 2008.