In this film Woody Allen offers up a modern-day Greek tragedy minus the choruses with instead a very haunting musical score by Philip Glass.
Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell co-star as Ian and Terry, two British brothers respectively living in London. They're nothing but two working-class lads who don't have the kind of money to buy a fancy sailboat, but they buy one anyway.
They call the boat Cassandra's Dream, named after a horse of which Terry bets in a horse race. Terry loves to gamble. He has one or two lucky winning streaks, but hasn't made any big wins. Ian works for his father's restaurant, but he's tired of it. Ian wants his own business, a hotel perhaps, but his attempts at starting one have always failed.
Both boys dream of something more or at least something better. Their mother always rubs their noses, or in a nagging way reminds them of their wasted potential. She rubs their noses in the fact that their wealthy uncle is always having to help them.
When their Uncle Howard, played desperately by Oscar-winner Tom Wilkinson, arrives, the lads feel the need to ask him for help again. Uncle Howard, who usually gives out of the goodness of his heart, or out of loyalty to his family, this time, asks the lads for something in return.
He asks the brothers to murder someone.
Ian and Terry have dug themselves into a financial hole which could sink their dreams and even their lives permanently. They need Uncle Howard's money, but the question becomes if they will kill for it.
In Match Point (2005), Allen gives us a near Greek tragedy, yet the murder is dispensed with very little whining or guilt. Here, Allen draws out the agony and even adds some thrills, which make the audience a little uneasy. This is as close to a genuine thriller as Allen has ever done. Three years ago, Allen made murder in the mind of one man seem like less of a choice. Here, the murder in question becomes a true tennis match between the two brothers, not to see who will score but who will fold.
Allen proves how good a writer he is by crafting a good story and interesting characters with good lines of dialog. Some may complain it's too talky, but Allen's scripts have always been such. Here, his scenes are hardly ever bogged down.
I wasn't too impressed with Allen's direction. His vantage point is as a somewhat passive, third-person observer. For the majority of this film, Allen keeps his camera pulled back. It's built around wide and medium shots mostly. You'll be hard-pressed to find a single close-up shot of any actor or object. Allen utilizes many two-shots and long camera takes, staging and blocking things much like in theater.
Allen likes to work fast, and it's evidenced here with hardly any coverage and obvious takes that seem like they weren't done many times. After directing over 40 films in over 40 years in the business, it can be argued that Allen can do that. His style here could either be the result of comfort or laziness. Whichever it is, it doesn't matter. Allen realizes, perhaps, as I see, that this is an actor's showcase anyhow. As such, fancy or compelling cinematography and editing are not required.
McGregor (Star Wars: Episode I and Moulin Rouge) seems to enjoy the most screen time. His Ian becomes enrapt by a dream of making it big, getting a huge business deal and sweeping a beautiful actress off her feet. His character almost mirrors that of Allen's central character in Match Point, yet you feel less of the pressure or burden here. Ian's motivation for murder is almost not understandable, or at least not as convincing.
Farrell (Tigerland and Alexander) doesn't talk a fairly convincing game like McGregor. Farrell actually puts his money where his mouth is. His Terry is racked with guilt and paranoia. His fear comes pouring through even before Allen affords him his one and only close-up at the end. Getting pulled into a murder plot spirals Terry into a mental breakdown fueled by pills and alcohol.
Farrell's performance is the heart of the film. Allen almost gives him too many lines. His panic requires very little dialog. His ambiguity about committing murder becomes the chief conflict. It's very well acted, but it's not properly balanced. Allen doesn't show us enough on either side.
At times, the movie feels like a philosophical debate, not wet with enough emotion or passion, as Allen's 2005 near-masterpiece. That being said, it's a great debate, intriguing, sometimes creepy, and, for a moment or two, scary. Allen still throws in lines that could be interpreted as classically comedic on the Woody scale.
They're not lame lines. They're merely Allen acknowledging the ridiculousness of the situation. But, it never devolves into that, in spite of it all. In part, Wilkinson sells it. Philip Glass' haunting orchestral sounds, punctuated her and there also help.
Three Stars out of Five
Rated PG-13 for mature themes and language
Running time: 1 hr. and 48 mins.