The film tells the story of a botched robbery, staged by two brothers (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke) on their parents' jewelry store, an undertaking that results in the accidental death of their mother, as well as the aftermath of the event, as their insufficiently detailed plans crumble through a series of mounting miscalculations. The film announces its ambitions early on, when the daughter of Ethan Hawke's character acts out the role of Edgar in a high school production of King Lear, a work with which the film seems anxious to draw significant parallels. Apart from the narrative similarities between the film and the play, Lumet here serves notice of his intention to recreate something of Shakespeare's epic achievement. The film aspires to not merely the nihilism of Lear, but to its tragic grandeur as well. The betrayal by one's own children, the central plot pivot of each work is, however, not in itself sufficient to achieve a true sense of the tragic; it is what happens after the betrayal that matters. In Lumet's film, the brothers try desperately to cover their tracks as a series of unexpected complications arise, the most significant of which is their father's discovery that his sons are responsible for their mother's death, a discovery that prompts him towards a filicidal revenge. The problem is that this revenge is neither as shocking nor as devastating as Lumet believes it to be. As the director lingers over the moment, introducing complications to prolong the scene, adding swirling strings to the soundtrack and concluding the scene with a fade out to white, we are asked to view this final action as a gesture of great moral significance, whereas it registers as merely the last in a series of rather absurd complications that follow from the robbery, reminiscent of the similarly absurd entanglements that resulted from the robbery attempt in the director's earlier Dog Day Afternoon. But, whereas in that film, Lumet was able to treat the situation with a certain absurdist humor, here he falters under the weight of his seriousness. The botched robbery is a situation that lends itself far more easily to a comic rather than a tragic treatment and the relative successes of Lumet's two films point up the difficulty of handling such material without a leavening layer of humor (excepting a single scene where an impossibly nervous Ethan Hawke attempts to retrieve a CD he left in a rental car). This is not to say that any material cannot be treated in any number of ways, simply that Lumet's handling of the later film's dramatic unfolding fails to adequately support his larger ambitions.
The film is further hampered by its decision to tell its story non-sequentially, a narrative device that can often add a unique perspective to a work of art, but one that must carry its own justification. Here, the splintered narrative serves only to add a level of suspense to the film, as it forces the viewer to piece together the constituent elements of the plot (presumably this is what some critics meant when they insisted that the film made audiences work), but it would seem to distract from Lumet's true concerns, since the real question the film asks is not what happened, but what significance (or rather lack of significance) can be read into the resultant events. Ultimately, the events are completely meaningless, which is indeed Lumet's point, but this point would be better taken if the narrative was presented unemphatically or set off with a dose of absurdist humor rather than everywhere weighted with a forbidding import. The director's final insistence on the dramatic quality of his material, given ultimate expression in the film's last scene, fails to raise the work to the level of the tragic, but it has the unfortunate consequence of undercutting the director's nihilistic reading of his own film. It is as if he wanted it to have it both ways, to pay lip service to the notion that the world is meaningless and all humanity corrupt, but then to acknowledge a meaning by calling on a conventional attitude to his material that treats the events as constituent elements of a grand modern tragedy freighted with great emotional and moral weight. That King Lear was able to achieve this sense of the tragic in the face of an ultimately meaningless universe is a tribute to the remarkable breadth of vision of Shakespeare's conception. Lumet's attempts to implement something of this contradictory program should not be held against him - after all most directors try for too little - but his inability to fulfill his ambitions combined with his unconcern for his film's visual program mark Before the Devil Knows You're Dead as considerably less than a full-fledged success. That the film is more engaging than the average Hollywood product doesn't make it a masterpiece; it must still be assessed on its own dubious merits.