Where has the Sidney Lumet who made "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" been hiding himself? Now 83, the legendary director had lost his way in recent years; the epic moral street scenes of "Dog Day Afternoon," "Serpico," and "Prince of the City" seemed to have given way to a long run of mediocrity, from 1993's "Guilty as Sin" to 2006's "Find Me Guilty."
With his new movie, though, Lumet seems to have rediscovered his storytelling innocence. He has also discovered digital filmmaking and has spoken in recent interviews of how the lightweight equipment and small crews took him back to his lithe, improvisatory work for live television during the 1950s. "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" - the title comes from the back half of an Irish toast - is compact, nasty, and altogether wonderful, a tale of brotherly greed and New York comeuppance that shows an old dog dusting off old tricks using new technology.
Lumet has the cast to back him up, too - Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, Marisa Tomei - and a spiky, unforgiving script by playwright and first-time screenwriter Kelly Masterson. Hoffman and Hawke play the brothers Hanson, Andy, and Hank, the former a grinning sleazeball, the latter a sweet and not very bright loser.
They're middle class but hanging on by their fingernails. Andy has a carnal trollop of a wife, Gina (Tomei), who likes fancy things, and the divorced Hank is months behind in his alimony payments. Perhaps a small robbery would solve their problems. Andy has just the place picked out, a mom-and-pop jewelry store in a Westchester shopping mall. "It's a victimless crime, if your [expletive] little conscience bothers you," he taunts his little brother. On the contrary: There turn out to be more than enough victims to go around.
"Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" breaks up this story into fragments unbound by time, jumping from the robbery in progress to three days beforehand to a week afterward, sampling the characters' different points of view as they prepare and panic. It's a fashionable, post-"Memento" gimmick but it also underscores how easily our plans come undone and how Murphy's Law picks us off one at a time - how we act alone, for all the lip-service we pay to brotherly love.
Hank is tapped as the gunman but he's much too nice a guy, so he brings along a heavy (Brian F. O'Byrne) to do the dirty work: Mistake number one. Rarely convincing when asked to play a hero, Hawke does some of his finest work ever here. In everything Hank does you see the tagalong baby brother; his creased face reflects the betrayals life has handed him but he's still the credulous kid left holding the bag after the bigger boys have run away.
Hoffman has the slipperier role of a semi-successful man with a tortured secret life. As in everything the actor does, you watch Andy with a mixture of delight and dread: The self-loathing insults with which he smacks his wife around, the eerie quiet of an executive heroin den into which he drops for afternoon nod-outs. (It's overseen by a sylph-like boy with a kimono and a gun.)
As his wife, Tomei uncorks a performance of kittenish depravity, and if it seems like Gina's nude most of the time, the movie implies that's simply her preferred resting state. The film's one slightly weak link is Finney as Charles Hanson, the boys' terse, judgmental father. Finney is listening to his inner King Lear and he accordingly pitches the character at a one-note roar of sorrow. "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" is smaller and more affectingly ordinary than that, even with an ending that nods toward grand tragedy. Masterson and Lumet know the sins of the father are endlessly resented by the sons, but this passion play unfolds in mini-mall parking lots, bland-on-bland suburbs, and crummy apartments.
There's no larger message other than that greed gives us something to hold on to even as it kills us. Greed's the salve that numbs the pain of all the disappointments - of life after childhood, of life after marriage, of life in New York. A dead man's wife (Aleksa Palladino), one of the movie's gallery of small, incisive character studies, mourns her husband by saying "he paid the bills," and it's a eulogy everyone here understands. "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" pares urban existence down to pure survival instinct, even as it peels Lumet's narrative skills back to the bone. Let's pray the man has a few more ones like this left in him.