Andy and Hank are brothers in blood and desperation. They both work at a high-end Manhattan real-estate brokerage and both of their lives are falling apart. Hank (Ethan Hawke) has an ex-wife who hates him at the top of her lungs because he's fallen months behind in support payments for their young daughter; he's also involved in a sleazy affair with a married woman. Hank knows he's going under unless he can score some serious money, but the chances of that happening appear to be zero.
Hank's older brother Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) makes six figures running their company's payroll department and puts up a prosperous front, including taking a deluxe trip to Rio to try to salvage his collapsing marriage to Gina (Marisa Tomei), the unlikely wife who's as svelte and spirited as Andy is chubby and dull. But Andy also has a closed-door office coke habit and regular after-work sessions with a high-rise drug dealer (Blaine Horton) who shoots up clients with heroin by appointment only. Andy knows he's going under too, and soon, but he has a plan — one that he thinks can save both him and his brother.
This turns out to be a jewelry-store heist — an idea so outlandish that Hank immediately rejects it. But after considering his options, which are none, he agrees to come in on the long-shot caper. Then Andy fills him in on the alarming details: The jewelry store belongs to their parents (Albert Finney and Rosemary Harris), and since it was Andy who came up with the idea, Hank will be in charge of the actual robbery. Without telling Andy, Hank brings in some professional assistance — a volatile thug named Bobby (Brian F. O'Byrne), who botches the job in the most appallingly awful way. The rest of the story consists of the two brothers trying to outrun the repercussions their harebrained scheme has set in motion.
With its doomed characters, dark consequences and grim realism, "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" resembles the film-noir classic "The Asphalt Jungle" (with Oedipal complications layered in by first-time screenwriter Kelly Masterson). Eighty-three-year-old Sidney Lumet, who directed such Oscar-winning '70s pictures as "Network" and "Dog Day Afternoon" (though he's never won a best-director Oscar himself), does a virtuoso job of twisting the screws on the two brothers as they blunder from one disastrous miscalculation to the next. (He's able to make even the most unpromising scene, like Hank's visit to a car-rental agency, resonate with teeth-grinding suspense.) And he lingers with bold visual deliberation over such revealing interludes as the one in which Andy wanders glumly from room to room in the drug dealer's expensively sterile apartment, awaiting the shot that will sink him into blessed, if temporary, oblivion. ("My life doesn't add up," he tells his strange, soulless host, who couldn't care less.)
Hoffman and Hawke, two very different actors, nail their very different characters with surgical precision — Hoffman carefully peeling away the layers of Andy's half-bright scumbag nature, and Hawke turning the puppy-dog loser Hank into a man we almost, but can't really, like. And the two leads get vivid support from the rest of the expert cast. Marisa Tomei, in one of the most surprising performances of her 23-year career, plays Gina as a wounded low-rent beauty with both a heart and a hapless capacity for betrayal. Albert Finney is the very incarnation of boiling patriarchal fury (a little too much so, actually). And Michael Shannon (the stone-faced GI rescuer in Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center") jacks up the tension as a menacing avenger named Dex, the last man Andy and Hank need in their already crumbling lives.
The movie's out-of-sequence construction is a little annoying — it doesn't seem to serve any narrative purpose — but Lumet barrels through its dislocations with bursts of sudden, startling violence. And in the end, as Andy and Hank stumble into the jaws of an unforgiving fate, we realize we've been in the hands of a master director who's never really gotten his due. No longer can it be denied.
Check out everything we've got on "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead."
Visit Movies on MTV.com for more from Hollywood, including news, reviews, interviews and more.
For breaking news, celebrity columns, humor and more — updated around the clock — visit MTVMoviesBlog.com.
Want trailers? Visit the Trailer Park for the newest, scariest and funniest coming attractions anywhere.