Decades ago, critics and audiences, unhappy with post-Interiors indulgences like September, implored Woody Allen to stick to making comedies; now, ironically, after dismal comic outings like The Curse of the Jade Scorpion and taut, intelligent thrillers like Match Point, the public’s position has reversed. In his old age, Allen’s proving his propensity for drama is becoming stronger than his comedy—no small feat, or arguable tribulation, for such a naturally funny man.
With Cassandra’s Dream, Woody Allen, still in his self-imposed London exile, forgets the diversion of his previous film, Scoop, and returns to the serious matters of murder, morality and the English class system that he previously visited in 2005’s Match Point, itself an Anglophized retread of his 1989 masterpiece, Crimes and Misdemeanors. Allen has become like an old uncle at a holiday gathering, telling the same old story year after year, but it’s such a good story and he tells it so well (and, hell, you love the guy) that you can’t help but want to hear him tell it again and again, with all the little changes that the years add.
Cassandra’s Dream is, if nothing else, particularly well-crafted; Allen’s form is becoming more reliable than his content, and his years of experience behind the camera are on full display in the way he builds some excruciating tension with the story of two two-bit brothers, Ewan McGregor (charming) and Colin Farrell (mopey), who are enlisted by their rich uncle Tom Wilkinson, spoken of with a Harry Lime-like reverence for a third of the film, to kill a former business associate who plans to testify against him. It takes a few reels of marvelously mounting suspense to perform the act, not so much of a “will they or won’t they?” variety—of course they will, it’s a Woody Allen thriller—but of a “oh my how and when is this going to happen?” sort.
Bearing a conspicuous though surely unintentional resemblance to last year’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (fellow New Yorker Lumet didn’t find it necessary to cross the Atlantic in order to rediscover himself), Cassandra’s Dream has a pair of brothers in over their heads with debts and financial obligations, but who aren’t fit for the lives of crime that they thrust themselves into. The film opens with promise—Farrell’s gambling successes, McGregor’s idyllic trip to the country, the loving women in their lives—but Allen subtly undermines it, foreshadowing the predictable misfortune to follow: in an early scene at a marina, the brothers are seen planning to buy themselves a modest boat. Sounds great, but a two-shot of Farrell and McGregor finds the latter behind a chain-link fence, indicating of course that he’s symbolically caged in contrast to the false freedom that the boat may initially signify.
As anyone who’s ever seen a film set, wholly or in part, on a boat before knows, it never ends well. (Knife in the Water, most glaringly, but also Dead Calm, even the final scenes of Funny Games or Key Largo.) “Ain’t life grand?” the brothers ask, quoting Bonnie & Clyde no less, but their father, John Benfield, is the one with the right idea: “the only ship sure to come in,” he says, “has black sails.”
In Allen’s world, business and upward class mobilization are built on the exploitation of others, here in the form of blood, and the film is about the potential, and obvious, moral conflicts therein. (“If we were in the army,” McGregor argues, “we’d be expected to kill strangers all the time for the profit of people up to here,” raising his flattened hand to eye-level, “in corruption.”) It also, like just about every other film lately, attacks the institution of family, for it’s out of “family obligation” (and a cash bail-out) that the brothers commit their crime, to keep their uncle out of jail. It’s only quite late in the film that Farrell finally realizes the obvious, that maybe their Uncle Howard (Wilkinson) deserves to go to jail, even if he “never forgot his family” after becoming rich and successful.
Cassandra’s Dream turns out to be a bit more moralistic than Allen’s previous forays into similar territory—and as such is a bit more old-fashioned, earning a PG-13 rating with a lack of on-screen violence or sex—with Farrell able to provide the chainsmoking superego to Ewan McGregor’s, or Jonathan Rhys-Myers’ or Martin Landau’s, id. “We broke God’s law,” Farrell says of the murder, to which McGregor responds, “God? What God, you idiot.” Farrell’s drunken, woeisme boohoohooery gets a bit tiresome as the film progresses, but it serves as a necessary contrast to McGregor’s cool acceptance that to get anywhere in the world, one must be prepared to kill, that men are either failures or murderers. Once again, it’s Benfield who gets it right when he observes, “nobody wants to be selfish, but everybody is.” But for perhaps the first time in Allen’s oeuvre, the characters actually pay for it.