The shamelessly dishonest people populating Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead don some pretty transparent disguises. At one point, Ethan Hawke wears a black wig and mustache like he's in the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage" video, and it's as phony as his assurances that he'll pay his ex-wife the delinquent child support.
In a way, Lumet's latest is its own brilliant disguise, masquerading as a hip, twisty heist movie when it's in reality a family tragedy. Lumet and screenwriter Kelly Masterson double back and forth in time and shift the point of view, but mostly center on two brothers: embezzler and white-collar junkie Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his more obviously flailing younger sibling Hank (Ethan Hawke). Andy suggests that they solve their money woes by knocking off the small jewelry store that happens to be owned by their parents (Albert Finney and Rosemary Harris).
Lumet, the octogenarian director of gritty New York stories such as Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon, conveys a hotshot filmmaker's hunger for bloodshed and carnality along with a seasoned artist's insight into human nature. The film opens with a sex scene between Andy and his wife, Gina (Marisa Tomei), that's startling in its frankness, then gives way to some post-coital pillow talk of equally surprising tenderness. Tomei reinvents herself as an irresistible sex symbol and Hawke practically drips desperation from his very pores, but Hoffman invests Andy's flaws with an enormous depth and complexity. It's remarkable how the Capote Oscar winner can so completely change the way he carries himself from movie to movie.
By the film's end, the family reveals enough bad blood for Cain, Abel and Oedipus, but much of the toxic dynamics are implied through the acting, like the awkwardness of the silences or the leering, proud-of-himself way Andy calls the store "a Mom and Pop" operation. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead doesn't try to "explain" the plot's thefts, adulteries and other family feuds as the result of childhood trauma, but we can fill in the blanks that the betrayals and violence were a long time coming. Usually films celebrate families, especially as the holidays approach, but Before the Devil Knows You're Dead suggests that you can be related to your own worst enemies.