Ethan Hawke is the slacker everyone loves to hate. At Gawker, reader-submitted sightings of the Gen-X actor/director/novelist wearing disheveled garb (“he looked like he’d just been coughed up by a very old cat”) were once so common they have been banned. It is therefore to Hawke’s great credit that in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead he fully inhabits the role of Hank Hanson, divorced father, aging pretty boy and all-around petulant underacheiver. While a lesser actor might have perished in the subtext, Hawke is lately coming into his own and brings a courageous amount of vulnerability to a performance begging to be picked apart for clues to his private life.
Behind on his child-support payments, Hank agrees to help older brother Andy, who faces debts of his own, rob their parents’s Westchester jewelry store. Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) points out to Hank — “in case, it bothers your faggoty little conscience” — that it’s a victimless crime; mom and dad (Rosemary Harris and Albert Finney) will be taken care of by their insurance policy.
At 83, director Sidney Lumet remains our consummate anti-auteur, an artist confident enough to disappear entirely from his work. The heist premise may be shopworn and the plot twists visible from a mile away, but Lumet drives this antiquated hunk-of-junk like a roller coaster. More impressively, he makes us believe, amid all the melodrama, in the sibling rivalry between Hank and Andy — despite how implausible his lead actors are as brothers. Hoffman’s Andy is a Mephistopheles in accountant’s clothing, and the corruptible Hawke his unsuspecting Faust. Yeah, you’ll see those twists coming, but not the bitter end.