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Cassandra’s Dream (2007) – Woody Allen

May 10, 2010

If you are even slightly familiar with Woody Allen’s films, you more than likely know they are routinely about characters filled with existential and basic moral anxiety. Recently, someone said (and this wasn’t from an Allen-phile exactly) that the director is incapable of making a bad film. It struck me as obvious and yet revelatory, and during my second viewing of Cassandra’s Dream, I thought it might be the way he handles this leitmotif that makes that sentiment accurate.
At least that’s a large reason why whenever questioned on my most favored filmmaker, the answer invariably comes back to Woody Allen. I find great comfort in his films; warmth comes to me as his signature credits roll, like the response of Pavlov’s dogs. Sure he has made a couple clumsy or clunky films, Hollywood Ending and Celebrity come to mind, but they are merely specks on such a prolific career.
After my first viewing of Cassandra’s Dream, I was left slightly underwhelmed though not unhappy with it. My second viewing unveiled not only a nice little film, but what must be a personal success for Woody Allen. It plays out like a Greek tragedy, of which it is certainly aware of, and is nice in how simply and straight-forward it gets from point A to B. I say a little film because of how determinedly low-key it is. I often find it hard to sort out why a film feels a certain way, and this is no different. It has three large-name actors, yes, but the film seems so uninterested in using its plot devices to exploit audience reaction. Think of this film in juxtaposition to Allen’s Match Point, both murder mysteries, but one an edge of the seat thriller that hits every note correctly in terms of both plot and point. Cassandra’s Dream instead plays out like a parable, it never even hints at trying to be comedic the way his earlier film did so naturally. This isn’t to malign Cassandra’s Dream in the least, instead in works in its favor; it would have been a complete failure as well as uninteresting if it were an attempt to recapture the tone and quality of Match Point. This brings up another thing I love about Woody Allen: though his films are sometimes preached as merely being retreads, he actually has quite a repertoire. He made three films in a row, each in the same area (one Allen is not native to), each a murder mystery, and each totally unique as well as successful, as far as I am concerned.
The film follows two brothers who each need financial help and therefore call on a rich uncle. In order to receive this help, they are then commissioned by him to murder a man the uncle deems as potentially detrimental to his career and life, which they carry out without flaw. Allen uses the two brothers to show two sides of humanity: the ones who feel guilt and the ones who try to avoid it for personal gain. Terry, played by Colin Farrell, is overcome with guilt, unable to forget the murder the way Ian, played by Ewan McGregor, is. Terry falls into a deep depression, while Ian is trying to persuade him that everything is alright. Eventually, Ian and their uncle, played by the always spectacular Tom Wilkinson, out of fear that Terry will out them, devise a scheme for Ian to kill Terry first. The brothers go out on the boat they were initially enamored with at the film’s opening but then neglected. The sea’s fresh air is unable to take Terry’s mind off of the murder and tells Ian he is certainly going to report it to the police. Ian erupts and attempts to murder his own brother, but out of self defense, Terry ends up accidentally murdering Ian as he is thrown on his back onto the lower level of the boat. We discern from the policemen’s conversation that Terry then took his own life.
Like I said, it is an homage to the Greek Tragedies. In that respect, it is almost surprising that the Ian character doesn’t end up walking away free, that he didn’t get away with killing his brother and the earlier man. I say this in terms that it is a Woody Allen film; I’m surprised that he didn’t want to leave us with perhaps the greater moral tragedy that the world would let a man like Ian live on. But instead, and rather adroitly, Allen shows us the tragedy of a man already so filled with guilt that he wants to kill himself who actually ends up killing his brother as well.
It is in that scene when Terry kills Ian, where Allen’s technique becomes most apparent. The camera closes in on Farrell’s shocked face and Phillip Glass’ music comes in, but Allen does not use these devices or the actor to makes us feel the sadness of Terry the way a different film would. Instead, the music seems to bridge this scene with the next. And the acting is appropriately two-dimensional almost, as are the characters, but it is more evidence of Allen’s ability to direct than an inability in the two leads. I think many have misdiagnosed actors’ abilities based on performances in Allen films based mainly on misunderstandings of the man’s style. His scriptwriting is often more akin to playwriting than most audiences are used to, as is his directing, which is famously filled with master-shots lasting in the double-digits and even minutes at times. But it is this shot of Colin Farrell that I most fully realized this film’s parable-like quality; think of how different it is from the end of Allen’s Manhattan where we feel immediately saddened and understand the inner turmoil of Isaac just by looking at Woody Allen’s face as he realizes he screwed things up with Tracy. But here, we don’t feel Terry’s guilt, instead Allen makes us think about what this means in terms of the film’s moral agenda; it’s a smart step from a director, who in his seventies, is still refreshing.

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