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Most scary movies are built on a fear of the unknown. We not only don't know what's going to happen next, but we lack — if we're lucky — any personal experience of the horrors that befall the characters. We have never been tortured or mutilated, much less murdered; or trapped in basements for days; or accidentally mistaken for intended victims and whisked off in locked cars. We can easily imagine what it might be like to be in such awful situations, and capable directors know how to manipulate our imagination; but because the perils and pitfalls are in fact unfamiliar, the whole business has something of the air of an adventure. Our little brains are always curious about "what's next."
Except when they're not, because they know, all too sickeningly well, "what's next." There is a rarer kind of scary movie, in which everything is horribly familiar to anyone with a conscience and some experience of the weakness — the inherent rot — of human rationalization. Movies that play on our fear of temptation tend to become more frightening as we get older, as it becomes increasingly difficult to distance ourselves from protagonists whom our younger selves had no qualms about dismissing as "stupid." Of course they're stupid, but we can't dismiss them anymore. We're stupid, too.
Cassandra's Dream, Woody Allen's new movie, is a starkly pure example of the second type of film. It is so pure, in fact — the dread of sin is so nakedly displayed — that Cassandra's Dream is, amazingly, funny. There is really no other way to respond to the hapless misgivings of of Terry (Colin Farrell), or to the delusional assurances of his brother, Ian (Ewan McGregor), other than to laugh. You laugh almost as if it would help, as if the sound of laughter would bring these young men back to their senses. It doesn't. It doesn't help — and then it is suddenly too late. I think that Woody Allen has finally made the perfect Woody Allen movie.
Mr Allen has always had an evident respect for the power of the great Greek family tragedies, as well as a somewhat less obvious regard for the power of operatically dilatory revelations, but never have these enthusiasms been more organically braided into the substance of his film. Terry and Ian are the functionally discontented sons of the owner of a perfectly ordinary (that is, unglamorous) restaurant in London (John Benfield) and his dissatisfied wife (Clare Higgins). Ian, shrewd but not as clever as he thinks, helps out at the restaurant but fully intends to build a career in hotels — and not just any hotels, but spas in California no less. He likes to borrow fancy cars from the garage where Terry works as a mechanic and take girls for outings in the country. Everything in Ian's world rests on presentation, and his father sees right through his sharp suits. This lack of faith, of course, simply eggs Ian on.
Terry the mechanic is something of a shambolic gambler. Mr Farrell has been decked out with intense eyebrows that all but form a chevron across his brow, while the black hair on his head stands up in shocked unruliness. (It seems to have been styled — or teased into raffish disarray — by New Yorker "Talk" caricaturist Tom Bachtell.) The effect is to make his face's smallish features look even smaller, giving him the air of an unaccountably swarthy nine year-old. Unlike the brothers in Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows Your Dead, Ian and Terry are friendly, devoted brothers. (Comparisons between the two films can be stretched no further than this: when it comes to crime, it doesn't make any difference if one brother is smarter than the other.) When Terry screws up at a big-stakes poker game (he has flogged a winning streak several hands too far), he tells Ian only because Ian, always optimizing his resources, hits him up for a loan.
It looks as though knees will certainly be broken, until Uncle Howard shows up, unexpected. Uncle Howard has made a fortune in cosmetic-surgery clinics around the world, and his sister, the boys' mother, never stops throwing Howard's success in her husband's face. Howard (Tom Wilkinson) has indeed bailed out the family more than once, and the brothers sing inward hallelujahs at the prospect of petitioning his generosity. It never occurs to them that he will need them to do something for him.
The scene in which Howard lays out his cards takes place in a small park, in a thunderstorm, beneath a tree. (This was a Woody Allen moment that the audience seemed to miss. Thunder. Lightning. "Let's go stand under that tree.") Ian and Terry take forever to understand that Howard wants them to murder a whistle-blower; you are so far ahead of them that you savor their resistance to the obvious as if it were an excellent vintage. Terry, who may be thicker but who does hang around guys who hang around cars, gets the picture faster than his brother, but he is so freaked out by Howard's request that he can't speak. Instead, he slowly succumbs to convulsions. Mr Farrell's shtick so completely upstages Mr Wilkinson that you can't help thinking that the actor has just awakened from a very bad dream, to find that it is in fact not a dream at all, and that he really is participating in a prestigious Woody Allen project, despite an inability to pronounce and define the word "sesquipedalian" that will doubtless cost him the job when it is discovered. His shakes are as eloquent as recitative by Mozart, and you can't take your eyes off him. Mr McEwan is terrific, too, and there is something genuinely tragic — in the theatrical sense, that is — about watching the true heir of Laurence Olivier lose our attention to the star of such screen gems as Phone Booth and The New World. This film certainly puts Colin Farrell in a new class. When the target is finally rubbed out, the camera draws back behind a garden hedge, not out of squeamishness or discretion but because Mr Allen knows that he can rely on Mr Farrell to act as his camera, registering, for the rest of the movie, the moral horror of what the brothers have done.
As Ian and Terry are healthy, well-built young men, there must be women in their lives. Kate (Sally Hawkins) is clearly deeply in love with Terry (who would return the favor if he were not quite so callow). She is deeply disturbed by the extent to which Terry is deeply disturbed by very bad dreams after the murder (of which she is of course unaware). In contrast, Angela (Hayley Atwell) is an ambitious actress with a lot of posh friends. (Her father, played by David Horovitch — Joan Hickson's Inspector Slack — is however only a retired chauffeur). We may never quite believe that Ian's need to wow Angela with the career and lifestyle that he doesn't yet have is quite so pressing as Terry's need to repay £90,000 pronto, but Mr McEwan and Ms Atwell are very convincing about Angela's reckless effect upon her would-be boyfriend.
Cassandra's Dream takes its name from a boat that the brothers buy at the beginning of the story, even though they can't really afford it. Their maiden voyage is one of the prettiest scenes that Mr Allen has ever filmed. As the boat slips past a sea of masts, beyond which flocks of puffy little white clouds graze on a blue sky, all I could think of was the wallpaper in a pampered boy's bedroom. The shot is quite literally a dream. (January 2008)
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