The unsettling new Woody Allen movie, "Cassandra's Dream," is about two London brothers - Ian (Ewan McGregor) and Terry Blaine (Colin Farrell) - who buy an old sailboat they can barely afford. They fix it up. The boat is an impressive prop in their divergent bid for upward mobility. Ian is trying to unhook himself from managing his father's foundering restaurant in order to try his hand at Los Angeles real estate. He's desperate to achieve grander things. He borrows the Jaguars Terry repairs at an auto shop to impress women. Not 15 minutes into the picture, Ian's traded up a waitress at the restaurant for an expensive-looking young actress named Angela (Hayley Atwell).
Terry is the simpler of the two. There's real dirt under his mechanic's fingernails. He's also a gambler. So is Allen. Eventually, Terry loses tens of thousands playing poker, and the film's innocent class drama turns into a tense little film noir - just like Allen's "Match Point" from a couple of years ago. The difference between these movies is patience, logic, and the richness of the acting. Both are agonizingly suspenseful as the enveloping moral dilemmas curdle into quagmires. But with "Match Point," Allen was as aspirational as his young, lady-killing hero - both of them smitten with the trappings of posh London life. They were one and the same, and the transparency was grim and ugly and smugly heartless.
This new movie is an improved remix. (It even has a Scarlett Johansson upgrade, a very good Sally Hawkins as Terry's loving girlfriend.) It's merely sad in the way it manages to pull Ian and Terry in over their heads. The mood of the picture is just right. Those sawing strings in Philip Glass's score make you feel as if you're drowning in bad news as opposed to bad scoring, the way you're sometimes wont to feel with Glass. Allen's storytelling is crisper here than it has been all decade, even if he's making shadow puppets out of the forewarnings. ("I think it's moral," Angela says about the erotic play she's currently in. "It's about evil." And at a garden party, she and her host talk about the Greek tragedies. Her favorite character is Clytemnestra.)
The movie is actually a softer treatment of the similar sibling anguish in Sidney Lumet's "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead." Allen isn't enough of a great dark artist to pull off a full-scale tragedy the way Lumet does. He and his cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond, and regular editor, Alisa Lepselter, cheat during the big grisly moments. You could say the squeamishness makes the movie feel lighter than it probably should (it's easy to imagine this being played for irreverent comedy). But the awfulness still comes across.
And at this point, Allen at least seems to know his limitations. He takes a lot of the pressure off himself as a writer by turning "Cassandra's Dream" into a character study. I guess "Match Point" was a character study, too. But the character was desperately negative. Allen resorted to murder only after writing himself into a jam. This time, he seems truly curious about the human stress of the act itself, much in the way he did with "Crimes and Misdemeanors."
The movie's morality is at intriguing odds with the idea of survival. Desperation really will make people do crazy things. Ian and Terry's father (John Benfield) was neither ambitious enough to dream bigger or desperate enough to take a real risk, and his wife (Clare Higgins) bitterly holds his modest success against him. He should have been more like her brother Howard (Tom Wilkinson), an outrageously flush plastic surgeon who's been giving the family money for years.
The Blaines are caught in a Eugene O'Neill time trap. They're living for an unattainable future. Howard's success is a model for Ian and Terry. But they discover they're not ruthless enough to achieve his wealth and power. Most people aren't. Allen's movie is a disturbing look at two boyish men who are too average, too human, too uninspired, too unlucky to be truly great.
In the process, he gets some lovely, delicate acting out of McGregor and Farrell, both of whom, like Benfield and Higgins, seem to have worked out their characters psychologically. How refreshing to see McGregor playing a lived-in person as opposed to a gimmicky prop or personality. The polish and gleam he gives Ian are a front for the character's delusional insecurity. It's a deceptively intelligent performance.
Farrell is even better. Despite Terry's chain-smoking, pill-popping, drinking, and gambling, he's kind and lovable. Unlike his brother, he actually wants a nice average life with his woman. But he can't resist the thrill of putting everything on the line.
Farrell vanishes inside Terry's boyish pluck and his nervousness. When Terry comes unglued, Farrell sometimes conveys the weight of a philosophical crisis by arching his eyebrows. If this performance is a quiet turning point for Farrell, it's a breakthrough for Allen, too. In his previous movies, Terry would have been the dumb mook with no conscience and no brain. He would have been a joke for a scene or two. Allen suddenly has a lot of feeling for that sort of character. Now he's the movie's soul.