Woody Allen makes a lot of movies, some of them good, some of them not so good, and some of them really great. While Cassandra’s Dream falls somewhere short of the really great, it’s much better than you would expect given the critical drubbing the film has received from a weirdly motivated press. Their biggest problem with the film seemed to be that it pales in comparison with Allen’s earlier Match Point. Given that Match Point was exceptionally good this is no surprise. Cassandra is a suspense drama clearly cut from the same cloth as Match Point with Allen in a melancholy mood and drawing on the work of writers like Dostoevsky as filtered through the psychological crime stories of Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr. Ripley). Both films center around working class characters dreaming of money and status who suddenly find themselves on the brink of having it all but for one small problem that requires them to commit a murder which corrupts all the good that comes after.
This time Jonathan Rhys-Meyers’ upwardly mobile Tennis coach is split into the brothers Blaine, Ian (Ewan McGregor) and Terry (Colin Farrell). Self-described as a “couple of losers”, the Blaine brothers both seek an escape from the daily grind, Ian through flashy clothes and a hoped for investment into some “hotels in California” and Terry with his “lucky streaks” betting on dog races and at the card table. Ian is stuck helping to run his father’s struggling restaurant which he despises while Terry is the more practical of the two, seeming to accept his position as a mechanic for what it is. Both of them share a bond of family, however, for each other, their parents, and their much loved and quite wealthy Uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson).
It’s Uncle Howard whom the boys place their hopes on since he has the money to solve both of their problems. Terry owes 90,000 pounds to a loan shark while Ian has fallen for a sexy high maintenance/low talent actress (newcomer Hayley Atwell) who thinks his borrowed sports cars and talk of investments are for real. Uncle Howard proves to be very willing to help them out, after all, family is everything as he says. But only if they help him, too, with a small problem involving a whistle blowing colleague named Martin Burns (Phil Davis). It seems that Uncle Howard isn’t all he says he is either and has gotten himself in a bind that may see him spending the rest of his life in prison. So, he wants the boys to kill Burns.
This moral dillema is the crux of the story, as Ian weighs how far he’s willing to go in order to get his hands on the prize. It seems he’s willing to go all the way and is content to live with his actions. Terry, however, is not so willing. He reluctantly agrees to help his brother with the crime but doesn’t know why he is doing it. He talks about feeling like he is in a dream, and not being able to control his actions. That’s because, in a sense, Ian is controlling them, campaigning for his point of view and trying to make Terry see it his way. Their choices lead to more trouble than either could’ve imagined, not so much from the authorities but from their own bloody hands and guilty minds.
There is an effortless artistry in this film that may have deceived many. It looks like a trifle but it packs a punch. Sure, he’s been over this ground before (in his absolute masterpiece, Crimes and Misdemeanors) but what great filmmaker doesn’t go over the same themes and characters over and over. It’s the very definition of “Auteur”. But it isn’t just the same approach over and over. Allen has grown into a very unique filmmaker over the years, becoming more and more masterful with his visual storytelling. Here, he uses just the bare minimum of characters and scenes to make his points and intentionally leaves moments dangling to create tension. Early in the movie, he shows Ian dating a waitress at his restaurant who vanishes from the story once he meets his dream girl. Allen lets you forget about her until a scene where Ian tells his father in the restuarant kitchen how he’s never dated a girl as special as this one - just as the forgotten about waitress enters the room. The scene just cuts away, leaving the audience to feel her humiliation.
Allen’s perfected visual style of the circling, stalking, prowling camera is the slick version of the experiments he made in the ‘90s with films like Husbands and Wives in which the visuals were handheld but had much of the same sense of spying and surveillance. He sticks to these shots and lets takes run long, not for style’s sake (he cuts when necessary) but to allow the actors to inhabit the frame with each other and give real time performances with “opening night” flubs and hesitations included. Allen seems to have kept to his one or two take stance and made it part of his style to show the flaws. In one scene in particular, the stunningly staged sequence where Uncle Howard asks the boys to commit murder for him, the intense and vibrant Tom Wilkinson shouts at them in the rain, stumbling over some of his lines and correcting himself in the take, making it feel all the more tense. Everything is alive and happening NOW in Allen’s modern style.
A brilliant moment is the killing itself which is so distasteful to the characters that the director expresses it by panning away at the exact moment of violence so that it hangs more horrifically in our imaginations as reflected through the faces of McGregor and Farrell in the scenes afterward. So much tension is built from their amateur attempts to commit the murder that at the very moment of truth, it seems almost impossible that they will actually do it. Scenes such as this elevate Cassandra into a film perhaps even more cinematic than Match Point. That film had the better script, but Cassandra is more exciting for its sheer filmmaking.
McGregor and Farrell give very strong and committed performances, seeming to be excited to work with Allen and each other. They seem more awake here as performers than in many of their more recent work. Farrell, in particular, gives Terry a real sensitivity and sweetness onscreen, convincing us of the man’s essential goodness which becomes stained with blood.
The women have more of a thankless job in this film which is so devoted to the central male relationship but both Hayley Atwell and Sally Hawkins make sure their characters appear to be more than mere plot devices. Atwell has the more stock role of what would be, in another film, the femme fatale, but she does a fine job of presenting the character’s pretensions and vulnerabilities. Hawkins’ plays Farrell’s supportive and sweet natured girlfriend, Kate, whose presence does much to create tragedy for the life he’s lost.
The final bone of contention about this film is that its portrayal of London is born out of watching too many episodes of Eastenders. Now, Londoners may have a point to make regarding their home turf, but I really don’t think Allen is making anything more than a pretense at reality here or in Match Point for that matter. Both films are morality tales or fables that are meant to be seen in a much less realistic light. You know, “Once there were these two brothers...”. On this level, the film works brilliantly. Unfortunately there is nothing really to say about the DVD release as it’s a completely bone dry skeleton of a DVD that contains the complete feature film with chapter stops. That's it. Not even the standard “Behind the Scenes” stuff with the self-congratulatory interviews. Thanks, Weinstein Company.
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