Before the Devil Knows You're Dead opens with an unflatteringly naked Andy Hanson (Philip Seymour Hoffman) conjugally conjoined with his far more flatteringly naked wife, Gina (Marisa Tomei). They are in Rio, they are in bed, and they are, for the moment at least, in love. Hearts may not be entertaining June, and an amber moon is nowhere in evidence, but Brazil has nonetheless worked its magic on their unhappy lives and marriage. As Gina elegantly puts it, "I don't feel like such a fuck-up when I'm here." Andy assures her that they'll come back again. "We have enough money," he promises, "to stay here for the rest of our lives."
It's a terrible lie. Though Andy makes six figures as an accountant at a large New York real estate firm, an appreciable portion of the salary goes up his nose or into his arm. Factor in the stylish apartment he and Gina share, and it's little wonder that he has taken to skimming off the company payroll.
As luck would have it, Andy's younger brother, Hank (Ethan Hawke), has financial troubles of his own, albeit of a more mundane sort: child support owed to his bitter ex-wife (Amy Ryan), private school tuition for his teenage daughter, and what appears to be a considerable liquor bill at a bar called Mooney's. So Andy, who's always imagined himself the smart brother, makes a proposal to Hank, who's always known he was the stupid one: "There's a place we can knock off. Like the back of our hand. Easiest money we'll ever make." It's a Mom-and-Pop jewelry store; the take should be large enough to solve all their money problems. And the reason it will be so easy is that it's their Mom and Pop's Mom-and-Pop jewelry store, and they're intimately familiar with its routines and safeguards.
It's easy to see this premise being played for comedy, but veteran director Sidney Lumet and rookie screenwriter Kelly Masterson have something quite different in mind. The movie's title comes from the Irish toast, "May you be in Heaven half an hour before the Devil knows you're dead." Unfortunately, everyone in the film is running about 35 minutes late. The jewelry heist goes horribly wrong, as one might have predicted given the hapless Hank's involvement. Bodies are left behind, as are clues that may or may not lead back to Hank and Andy.
From this precipitating tragedy, the film unspools both forward and back in time. The story is told, then rewound and told from another point of view, offering up not only the consequences of the reckless robbery, but its underlying causes as well. What begins as a crime story gradually unfolds into a film about family dysfunction. Andy's trophy wife Gina, we discover, feels like such a "fuck-up" at least in part because she is carrying on an affair with his brother Hank. And while Andy is oblivious to the infidelity, his choice of both accomplice and crime seems motivated in part by ancient grievances against his brother and his father (Albert Finney). Andy is a man who seems almost to want things to go wrong, if only to confirm his pitiless vision of the world and his place in it.