While The Narrator had previously written at length about Cassandra’s Dream for the first (second, really) Lovefest, this is an entirely new piece on the film. When there are spoilers, they will be marked.
Of all the films in Woody Allen’s catalogue, the one Allen returns to and recycles from the most is likely Crimes and Misdemeanors. Specifically, one-half of that film, the one where Martin Landau contemplates, and eventually carries out, the murder of his mistress, who threatens to reveal both their affair and his financial indiscretions. The most obvious recycling of the film was Allen’s Match Point, where a man contemplates the murder of his mistress, who’s pregnant and demands that he reveal their affair to his wife. While that film lacked the richness of Crimes‘ themes about God and Judaism, it made up for that by being a cracklingly good thriller, showing off Allen’s unused chops for building suspense. The film was rewarded with the best reviews Allen had received in more than half a decade, and Allen still considers it to be one of his very best. But that’s not the film I want to talk about. No, it’s his later Crimes recycling, Cassandra’s Dream, that is of particular interest to me. There’s no troublesome mistress this time around. Hell, the film’s central murder is of someone who is not doing anything to try and harm the main characters. Why do they want to commit such a heinous act if they don’t really need to? It’s because of that old chestnut, about how family comes first.
It all starts with family. Indeed, the film’s protagonists, Terry (Colin Farrell) and Ian (Ewan McGregor), open the film debating whether or not to get a sailboat. They ultimately decide to, because they remember the times when their uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson) took them out on a sailboat when they were kids. That sailboat costs a lot of money, but it reminds them of their family, so they’ll take it (they name it “Cassandra’s Dream”, which Terry, having apparently slept through Greek history in school, thinks is a lucky name because it was the name of the dog at the track that won him the money for the boat). When they get home to their folks, their mother wants them to keep helping with the family’s restaurant. She tells them that there’s nothing more important than family, and they shouldn’t forget it. They don’t, and this throws a little more dirt on more than one grave.
From the way he’s talked about, uncle Howard is a god amongst men. He’s the only successful one in the family (he’s a plastic surgery mogul), he travels across the globe, he’s even learning Chinese (the extent to which everyone is proud of this would be more appropriate if he rescued five orphans from drowning)! He knows what family means, he’s more than willing to bail his family out of jams (because, as the mother keeps telling the father, the father’s earnings aren’t nearly enough to keep them afloat). And Terry needs help after he lost big in a card game. Of course, he needs Terry and Ian to know what family means as well. On the surface, he’s not asking them anything different than what their mother was asking for; he needs them to help him, their favorite family member, out. But what he’s asking them to do is murder someone who would be inconvenient to uncle Howard in the event that he would go to trial. When they express doubts about this whole endeavor, he seems more shocked about their hesitance than anyone asking their nephews to murder someone should feel. He tells them “Family is family, blood is blood”. Indeed it is. They decide to go through with it.
Uncle Howard is not necessarily the villain of Cassandra’s Dream. Yes, he’s telling them to do a heinous act to save his skin, but it’s not like he’s giving them new information to con them into doing it. The decision is all theirs, and they don’t make it because of Howard’s impeccable persuasion skills. It’s not even necessarily based on their mother’s words about family, although those play a big role. No, it’s based on their memories of what a real mensch uncle Howard was when they were young. They think he’s a swell guy, and sure, they’ll kill for that lovable son of a gun. Allen’s movies are not short on cynical messages (just look at his movies about how God is either blind to man’s crimes or nonexistent), but this might take the cake as the most cynical; here, murder is not introduced because of weakness of spirit or unwillingness to give up a life, it comes into play because the main characters like their family members.
(SPOILERS for the next paragraph)
But Allen hasn’t even gotten as deep as he possibly can into cynicism. Sure enough, Terry and Ian carry out the murder, and while Ian seems to brush it off him with disturbing ease, Terry becomes a live-wire, haunted by memories of his victim and his crime. Sure enough, when uncle Howard hears of Terry’s increasing unreliability, he suggests the only possible action; killing him. Because even if he’s taking out family, he’s still helping out family in the process. The cost of liking your uncle is now set at a stranger and your brother. Ian elects to murder Terry on their sailboat, the same one that they bought because of uncle Howard, the first of many bad family-related decisions (they were too busy plotting the first murder to get their money’s worth on the boat). But there’s still an extra cost, as Ian finds that he can’t go through with his attempt to lace Terry’s beer with an excess of pills, and he attempts to fight Terry instead, a fight he loses when Terry throws him directly into a table. Terry, already overcome with guilt, drowns himself in response to this. The family image Terry and Ian fought so hard to preserve has been demolished in their attempts, and a family has destroyed itself to save itself. The final shot is of the sailboat, a symbol of Terry and Ian’s foolishness in idolizing their uncle. Kids, the moral of the story is that you should hate all of your family as a cautionary measure in case they ask you to murder people. That’s the only way to be sure.