Most published critics are idiots. Yet again this verity was reinforced to me whilst popping in and watching one of the latest films by Woody Allen to hit DVD. Cassandra’s Dream was almost wholly ignored in this country, lasting only a couple of weeks in the theaters. Yet, it is one of the two best films that Allen has made this decade, along with his other, earlier British murder drama, Match Point. While that film was lauded by critics as a return to top form by Allen, this film has been derided as a mere copycat of that film, which was, in many ways, a reworking of the serious half of Allen’s monumental 1989 film Crimes And Misdemeanors. Both claims are essentially true, but Cassandra’s Dream takes elements from both Match Point and Crimes And Misdemeanors and reworks them in novel ways. While it is not an indisputably great film like the first film in this ‘murder trilogy,’ it is, in a different way, a film that hits near greatness, like Match Point.
This hour and 45-minute long film opens with two brothers (a la the murderous siblings in Crimes And Misdemeanors), Terry (Colin Farrell) and Ian (Ewan McGregor) Blaine, running down a dock to look at a small sailboat they want to buy. This imagery is very important, because in the two grown men we see a childlike abandon that foreshadows the immaturity both brothers will display later in the film. They buy the boat and name it Cassandra’s Dream, after a horse that Terry, an inveterate gambler, wins some money on. The name also has resonance since, in classical Greek mythos, Cassandra was cursed with the gift of foresight but doomed to never be believed by anyone. In a similar way, Terry will soon see things in his and his brother’s future that he will warn his brother of, and not be believed.
Terry is an auto mechanic and Ian a failed entrepreneur. Their father (John Benfield) runs a restaurant, and their strong mother (Clare Higgins) is constantly belittling him for his economic failures vis-à-vis her brother, the boys’ uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson), a wealthy plastic surgeon who has always bailed the family out of situations and jet sets between London, Hollywood, and China. The lives of the two brothers are sketched very well by a series of brief encounters that show their good and bad sides. Allen establishes their characteristics so firmly, poetically, and quickly, within the first 20 minutes, and with brief scenes that show fleeting reactions to good, bad, and routine events that populate an existence, that it’s a wonder why so few filmmakers realize that such table setting reaps huge benefits in plot developments, for with a character established a plot can plow ahead without derailing over some minor digression to explain a thing that can be made to seem obvious by the look of the character or the shrug of a shoulder.
Both brothers have girlfriends. Terry is moving in to a home he buys with his gambling winnings, and his girlfriend Kate (Sally Hawkins), the only good major character in the film, along with the boys’ father, seems blissfully unaware of his flaws. Ian, meanwhile, jet sets with sports cars he borrows from his brother’s garage, and, after an afternoon of sex in the countryside with his black girlfriend, Lucy (Ashley Madekwe), a waitress at his father’s restaurant, he comes across a gorgeous brunet actress whose car is in bad shape. Her name is Angela (Hayley Atwell), and he falls in love with her despite her being vain, flirtatious, and a manifest bedhopper and golddigger. In short, she’s a typical Woody Allen shiksa goddess, but one of the best he’s ever cast. She is much better than recent attempts at this type, like Christina Ricci or Scarlett Johansson, for while a self-centered bitch, she makes no pretense to having any intellectual depth nor culture while flaunting her sexuality, things the former actress lacked and the latter was miscast as having.
After both need money — Ian to make money in a California hotel scheme and Terry to repay a 90,000 pound gambling debt — Ian starts stealing from his father’s restaurant. When caught, the two can only turn to rich Uncle Howard, both for money and his Hollywood connections to help Angela. Howard agrees to help out, but only if the two boys kill someone for him. It seems that Howard has been doing some illegal financial schemes (a la the Martin Landau character in Crimes And Misdemeanors) and is now being threatened with exposure by a colleague named Martin Burns (Phil Davis). Howard uses guile and guilt to get the brothers to assent to the deed — especially the line, "Family is family. Blood is blood" — but Terry is the more equivocal. Like the Landau character in Crimes And Misdemeanors, Terry is a bundle of nerves. They plan to off Burns in a few weeks, while Howard is out of the country, but after meeting him at a bar where Angela’s friends gather, Terry finds it even more difficult, because Burns is a very personable fellow.
Nonetheless, Ian persuades him, and they devise a scheme to kill Burns with wooden disposable guns. They try to kill him at his apartment, but Burns returns with a female companion, and the duo have to wait till the next night, as Terry refuses to kill both. That night, Burns will be visiting his mother. They follow him when he leaves, and shoot him in a deserted park. Unlike the murderous lead character in Match Point, the brothers are never suspected of the murder, but Terry’s drinking, drugging, and guilt consume him, and he threatens to go to the police. Ian reports this to Howard, and they resolve that Terry has to be stopped. The pair realize that Terry was right: after the first murder the line against killing is far easier to cross a second time.
Kate, meanwhile, worries for Terry’s health and sanity. Ian comes over and the pair agree to go boating to talk things over. There, Ian plans to take some of Terry’s pills, poison him, and pretend he drowned. Ian poisons a beer for his brother, but cannot do it, and rushes at Terry with rage over his pending betrayal. They fight, and Terry accidentally kills Ian. The film ends with no further mention of the Burns killing. Angela and Kate are blissfully shopping, and police recount that it seems that in a fit of drugging and drinking, one of the brothers was killed and the other brother killed himself. A shot of an empty Cassandra’s Dream at the dock ends the film.
In the first moments after the film’s end I was still reeling from the abruption of the last five minutes, for it seemed to me that Allen was going to repeat himself with Terry (like the Landau character in Crimes And Misdemeanors) coming to terms with his crime, and (like the lead character in Match Point) getting away with it. But, the two murderers end up dead. However, Allen does throw in the twist that the mastermind of the murders, Howard, has gotten off scot-free, with his accuser and two witnesses all dead. But, unlike in Crimes And Misdemeanors, we don’t get to see him gloat and benefit from his crimes. Yet, with a few more minutes of thought, the film’s ending is as good as one can get, and wholly believable, while not falling into the repetition of amorality that ends Match Point.
The DVD, by Genius LLC, has no features, save a few theatrical trailers of other films. The film’s score, by Philip Glass, is hit and miss, as often emotionally leading an audience by the nose as genuinely enhancing the film, a characteristic far too many Glass scores embody. The camera work by longtime Allen collaborator Vilmos Zsigmond is quite good. But the writing is what sets this film apart from so many other routine ‘thrillers.’ In a sense, Allen’s problem with such a film reminds me of a similar problem that German director Werner Herzog had with his recent Vietnam War film, Rescue Dawn.
So many critics focused on how its similarity in themes to earlier masterpieces by the director showed the later film up as inferior to the earlier ones that they missed out that the newer films were damned good on their own. Yes, Rescue Dawn is not as good, deep, and poetic as Aguirre: The Wrath Of God, and similarly Cassandra’s Dream is not the almost perfectly crafted masterpiece that was Crimes And Misdemeanors, but so what? Both are outstanding films that, shorn of the comparisons and if directed by artists other than Herzog and Allen, would have drawn unadorned raves. Also, it’s helpful to note that the critics who dissed this film are the same folk who dissed the same earlier great Allen films when they came out, but who now hold them up as exemplars, only exemplifying the utter lack of critical acumen this essay’s first sentence denotes.
This film also provides a terrific showcase for Colin Farrell to show off his acting chops. Playing against type, he is the weaker of the two brothers, and he is excellent, showing that he is not mere female eye candy and that turns in stinkers, like Oliver Stone’s Alexander, are not the best he can do. Ewan McGregor is good, as usual, as are the girlfriends, Atwell and Hawkins. Wilkinson is solid as the uncle, but the film might have given him a bit more to do. As is, his character is only a plot device to propel the brothers on their journeys, although the fumbling delivery Howard makes, and his digressions on why he won’t consider a professional contract, make the scene all the more believable.
But the film is so rich with great moments that detail character and plot, as mentioned earlier, that the screenplay could be used as an aid in screenwriting classes, for the film does trod over familiar Allen territory, but often with new twists and interesting asides which only deepen the resonance the film has. As example, after Ian meets Angela, he dumps his black girlfriend, Lucy, and a bit later, we see him callously telling his dad how special Angela is, and how much better and classier than any other girl he’s dated she is. Lucy hears this, and the reaction she gives subtly lets us know how hurt she is and what an insensitive ass Ian is.
There is also a scene where Ian questions Angela’s ethic, by asking her if she’d sleep with a director to get a part, and she replies under what conditions she would. Ian, who has far weightier issues to deal with, seems stunned, but Angela puts him in his place by stating she gave the answers, but did not like the question. It’s a small moment that shows that, while vain and egocentric, she does have a delineated ethical compass, and a penchant for giving as good as she gets- something many more one dimensional Allen sexpots lack. But, these are only two of a dozen or more such moments that enrich this film beyond mere ‘thriller’ status.
And while Terry and Ian ruminate a bit on ethics they are not the typical Allen eggheads hemmed in by their intellectual prowess and emotional impotence. Their collective naïvete is actually a bit refreshing, for when they repeat ideas hashed out in earlier Allen films (like the concept of ‘pushing a button’ and someone is dead, borrowed from Crimes And Misdemeanors) or fixate on new ones (such as an addled Terry’s claim that ‘It’s always now!’ — i.e., the moment they committed murder) it is always in a different tone, one with more desperation, pathos, or stolidity, than before or expected. Also the fact that Allen, at several points, including the film’s ending, seems to let the film settle into a groove that seems predictable, only to pull out the rug from under the viewers’ expectations, lets the film maintain a tension and vigor it would otherwise lack. Viewers naturally desire clichés, in an emotional sense, for the comfort, yet when the film resists it the momentary disappointment blossoms into attraction to the storyline’s turn from the expected, for manifest clichés invoke an intellectual resistance in a viewer, as well.
All in all, Cassandra’s Dream is an outstanding and acidic portrait of family and crime, and one that was shamefully dismissed, when not neglected, by the idiotic elitists that populate the critical consensus that dominates film reviewing. Go against the grain, seek out this film on DVD, and let it work within you as well as on you.