In the opening scene of Before The Devil Knows You're Dead, Philip Seymour Hoffman lies back on a resort hotel bed following passionate sex with wife Marisa Tomei, and wonders how he can extend the moment indefinitely. Immediately afterward, the film cuts to a botched suburban jewelry store robbery, and then to the incidents leading up to that robbery, but for a good long stretch, director Sidney Lumet and screenwriter Kelly Masterson don't specify when in the timeline the opening post-sex scene takes place. Was this the moment—satiated and high—that well-to-do Manhattan real estate executive Hoffman decided he needed even more money? Or is this a moment he's headed towards, at the end of a big score?
Some modern crime movies scramble their timelines for mind-bending flash, but there's a purpose to the way Before The Devil Knows You're Dead keeps showing its characters in dire straits and then showing how they got there. Hoffman is a dreamer, who sees the ideal end point of all his choices, be it abandoning the family business or relying on his alimony-strapped younger brother Ethan Hawke to carry out a heist that will solve their cashflow problems. But Hoffman is also a user—of drugs, and of people—and he doesn't foresee how disrespecting his father Albert Finney might cost him a valuable ally, or how trusting people as desperate as he might mess up his plans. Hoffman wants to "get to heaven before the devil knows he's dead," as the saying goes, but there may be too many forks in the road.
Lumet tackles this material like an old master, finding scenes to settle into and hanging out there longer than a younger director might. (Perhaps too long, in some instances.) Lumet's fascinated by lived-in spaces—from suburban kitchens with food containers stacked near piles of books, to high-rise drug dens that look hermetically sealed—and he and Masterson continually emphasize how in New York everything costs more than even rich people can afford. Ultimately, the film is just a smart caper picture with some good performances, but at times it's very smart, and Hoffman's performance in particular is one of the most natural and unexpectedly affecting that he's given in years. He's a creep, but he's a creep with needs, and even as he's making despicable decisions, it's hard not to sympathize with the picture in his head of a tropical vacation spot, and the sweat drying on his lover's back.