Andy and Hank Hanson are brothers who decide to commit the uncouth crime of robbing their parents' jewelry store. The crime goes terribly wrong - thus beginning an examination of the three men in the Hanson family. Through a series of flashbacks, we get to know Charles Hanson and come to an understanding of the strained relationship between father and sons.
Younger brother, Hank is basically a screw-up. He has always had trouble holding a job and pretty much goes in the direction of the wind. Hank is insecure, cowardly, and very much under the influence of his big brother. Ethan Hawke has the character of Hank "nailed to a T" and gives what is probably his best performance thus far. He shows us a man who is basically good-hearted but so influenced by outside forces that he is unable to follow through with any important task.
Andy - on the surface - appears to be a successful businessman, but we soon discover that he is addicted to drugs and has been embezzling from his company to pay for his habit. It is Andy who concocts the scheme to rob his parents' store, and he gets weak-willed Hank to commit the act. Philip Seymour Hoffman - surely one of the finest actors of our time - plays Andy. Hoffman is an actor who has the ability to portray a man who, on the surface, is a charming businessman liked by his acquaintances but a real slime ball underneath. He is absolutely perfect for the part of Andy or it might be said that he, through his superior acting skills, made Andy the perfect part.
Albert Finney plays a father common to his generation. Charles Hanson is not a bad or unfeeling man, but he has a lousy relationship with his sons because he never really understood what was necessary in nurturing a positive bond between his sons and himself. He has always been too quick to criticize and admonish. He always made it clear that he favored his younger son over his older thus causing a wide emotional rift between himself and Andy. As we get to know Charles and Andy, the thought of Andy forming a plan to rob from his father becomes less unbelievable.
On a personal note, I cannot believe how much Charles Hanson reminded me of my own father, and how much Andy and Hank reminded me of my own brother and myself. Perhaps this may be one of the reasons that I enjoyed the film so much as this story of a distant, critical father, a more successful older brother, and a less successful younger brother hit so close to home. Fortunately, my brother and I never came to the state of committing a crime against my parents- guess we were made of sterner and more moral stuff.
This complex of personalities and actions has been expertly put together by director, Sidney Lumet. At eighty-three, he still has the chops to give the audience engrossing characters and edge-of-seat action that hypnotizes. 12 Angry Men was his first film made fifty years prior to Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, but he hasn't lost any bit of his magic touch in showing us characters that will be long remembered.
The events and characters in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead are harsh and unattractive, and this is definitely not a feel-good movie. However, it is two hours of ultimate entertainment which I thoroughly recommend.