The film was written by Kelly Masterson, and stars Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Marisa Tomei, and Albert Finney. The title comes from the Irish saying: "May you be in heaven a full half-hour before the devil knows you're dead". The film unfolds non-linearly, repeatedly going back and forth in time, with some scenes shown from various points of view.
The film received critical acclaim, and was selected as one of 2007's ten most influential American films by the American Film Institute at the 2007 AFI Awards.
Note: The story is explained here in its chronological order, rather than as it is presented in the film.
Andy Hanson (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a finance executive at a real estate firm in New York City. Facing an upcoming audit he knows will reveal his having embezzled from his employer (in support of a drug habit), Andy decides to escape to Brazil, believing there to exist no extradition treaty between Brazil and the United States. To raise the necessary funds for the trip and to establish himself once there, he hatches a scheme and enlists the aid of his brother, Hank (Ethan Hawke), himself in need of money to pay three months' back child support as well as his daughter's private school tuition. Hank, meanwhile, has been having a long-standing affair with Andy's wife, Gina (Marisa Tomei), who has been unsatisfied with her marriage.
Of the two brothers, Hank is well-meaning, but weak-willed and cowardly, easily dominated by his stronger-willed older brother, Andy, a ruthless schemer. Andy in turn harbors great resentment that his younger and more attractive brother received more love and affection from his parents than he did during childhood. Andy devises a plan to rob their parents' jewelry store, to which Hank reluctantly agrees. Andy argues that he cannot go himself because he has been in the neighborhood recently, and could therefore be recognized. They assume that only Doris, an elderly woman who works for their parents, will be in the store. Andy states that just a toy gun is needed and that it is a victimless crime, because insurance will fully compensate their parents for the stolen items. Andy plans to fence the jewelry via a New York City dealer his father knows, and expects to net about US$120,000 from the robbery.
Without consulting Andy, Hank hires Bobby Lasorda (Brian F. O'Byrne), an acquaintance who is an experienced thief, to help him in the robbery, as he is too frightened to carry out the crime alone. Bobby reveals a real gun and decides he will commit the robbery himself; Hank just needs to wait in the car. Unbeknownst to the robbers, the brothers' mother Nanette (Rosemary Harris) happens to be filling in for Doris. The robbery goes awry when Nanette pulls a hidden gun on Bobby, causing a shootout; Bobby dies on the scene, and Nanette falls into a coma, dying a week later in the hospital after her husband Charles (Albert Finney) agrees to take her off life support. Charles, unsatisfied with the police's indifference, decides to investigate on his own, and he becomes obsessed with finding information about the crime and others involved in it. Shortly after the botched robbery, Hank is confronted by Bobby's brother-in-law Dex (Michael Shannon), who demands financial compensation for Bobby's death to provide for his sister, Chris (Aleksa Palladino), Bobby's widow.
While Andy is away from his office dealing with his mother's death, his superiors at work repeatedly try to contact him regarding irregularities in his department's accounts that have been revealed by the audit. At the wake for Nanette, Andy and Charles have a complex and emotional exchange, wherein Charles states he loves Andy despite their long-standing differences; Andy says he has always felt like an outsider in his father's house. When Andy questions his biological heritage, Charles slaps him. Andy and Gina immediately depart, and on the drive home Andy has an emotional breakdown over his relationship with his father. Later, at home, Gina tells Andy his boss has been trying to get in touch with him, and expresses her frustration with their marriage and Andy's growing coldness. Andy, preoccupied with covering up his embezzlement and trying to help Hank deal with Dex's blackmail, hardly reacts when Gina announces she is leaving him. Her desperate attempt to extract an emotional response from him – revealing her affair with Hank – fails, and she leaves.
Charles, searching for information about the robbery, visits the same fence Andy had contacted in New York City. After an acrimonious exchange that indicates Charles and the jeweler have known and disliked each other for decades, the jeweler hands Andy's business card to Charles, revealing to Charles that Andy recently came to him looking to fence some jewels. Charles immediately goes looking for Andy. Andy decides to resolve the blackmail situation with Hank by robbing a heroin dealer that he frequents, and then escape abroad. At the dealer's apartment, Andy and Hank overpower the dealer and steal his money. Hank is shocked when Andy kills the dealer and a client who happened to be present. The brothers then go to pay off Dex, but Andy impulsively kills him from fear of continued blackmail. Andy appears ready to kill Chris (Bobby's widow and Dex's sister) when Hank objects. Andy turns the gun on Hank, revealing that he knows about Hank and Gina's relationship. Hank begs Andy to kill him, but Andy hesitates. As Andy pauses over whether to shoot his brother, Chris shoots Andy with her brother's gun, wounding him. Hank leaves his brother and guiltily leaves some of the money behind for Chris before fleeing with the money, drugs and paraphernalia they robbed from the heroin dealer.
After leaving the fence, Charles tails Andy. He follows Andy from his apartment tower, watches as he goes to Hank's apartment, then follows his sons to their meeting with Chris, and finally follows Andy to the hospital where the paramedics take his wounded son. Andy breaks down and apologizes to his estranged father for the robbery, explaining Nanette's death was an accident. Charles seemingly accepts his apology. Charles then attaches Andy's heart monitor to himself and suffocates his son to death with a pillow. Andy struggles to stop his father, but in his weakened condition he is overpowered. As nurses rush to help Andy, Charles walks away.
Lumet made the decision to shoot Before the Devil Knows You're Dead on high definition video after experimenting with the format on the television series 100 Centre Street. At a press conference at the 2007 New York Film Festival, Lumet called shooting on film "a pain in the ass," and predicted that as soon as distributors and exhibitors could agree on a digital projection format, photographic film would be rendered obsolete.
Filming of the primary robbery scene in the film took place at the Bay Terrace Shopping Center in Bayside, Queens, New York. The scenes where Andy Hanson (Philip Seymour Hoffman) uses heroin were filmed in an apartment on a high floor on the northwest corner of Trump World Tower. This can be deduced from the location and angle of the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building seen through the window.
The scenes where Hank Hanson (Ethan Hawke) stops at a gas station to change in the restroom and uses a payphone to call Andy (Hoffman) were filmed on South Broadway in Yonkers, New York.
The climactic scene of the film where Andy Hanson (Hoffman) is shot was filmed on West 45th Street between 9th and 10th Avenues.
The film premiered on September 6, 2007 at the Deauville Festival of American Cinema in France. It was also shown at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 13, 2007. It opened in France on September 26, 2007. The film made its American debut on October 12, 2007 at the New York Film Festival.
The film received mostly positive reviews from critics. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, 88% of critics gave the film positive reviews, based on 167 reviews, with the critical consensus reading: "A tense and effective thriller, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead marks a triumphant return to form for director Sidney Lumet." On Metacritic, the film had an average score of 84 out of 100, based on 37 reviews, indicating "universal acclaim".
Time magazine's Richard Schickel named the film one of the top 10 films of 2007, ranking it at #3, saying "At one level the movie is a wonderfully intricate exploration of family dysfunction. At another, it's a coolly controlled examination of increasingly insane criminal ineptitude. Either way you look at it, this is a hypnotizing film from one of our great masters." Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars, calling it "superb" and its director, Sidney Lumet, a "living treasure."
Top 10 lists
The film appeared on many critics' top 10 lists of the best films of 2007.
The film opened in limited release in the United States on October 26, 2007 in two theaters, grossing US$73,837 in its opening weekend. In total, the film grossed over US$25 million worldwide.American Film Institute Awards 2007
Boston Society of Film Critics Award for Best Cast
Gotham Awards – Best Ensemble Cast
Satellite Award for Best Cast – Motion Picture
The film was released on DVD and Blu-ray on April 15, 2008.