Family is Family, Blood is Blood


Family values are at the center of these two films that may have slipped under your radar.

News Editor

An ancient Chinese proverb has the following thing to say about family: A family in harmony will prosper in everything. It’s probably the truth, but some of the best Hollywood films seem to focus on families that are nowhere close to being in harmony.

This week, family is indeed at the center of the two films that I have decided to discuss. The individual films are bound not only by their subject matter but also by their impressive casts and the influential directors behind the camera.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead and Cassandra’s Dream were both released in 2007, and both managed to be ignored by audiences who were caught up in the awards frenzy of that year. Both, however, deserve another look.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is brought to us by directing great Sidney Lumet, who passed away on April 9 and was behind such influential classics as Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and The Verdict. Lumet returned to top form with the 2007 film which tells the story of two brothers who need some extra cash and decide to rob a “mom and pop” jewelry store. The only problem is that the store they decide to rob belongs to their own parents, and as events spiral out of control the true measure of family begins to take center stage.

Philip Seymour Hoffman, the greatest working actor in Hollywood, and an effective Ethan Hawke play the brothers who fail to control any of the relationships within their lives. Hoffman’s wife, played by Oscar-winner Marisa Tomei, is having an affair with Hawke’s character and Hoffman is so drugged up that he fails to ever really figure it out.

As a victimless crime turns into a family tragedy, the father (wonderfully played by legendary Albert Finney) begins to take matters into his own hands. As he begins to learn more about what actually happened at the jewelry store, family values are reexamined, and the ties that bind slowly begin to unravel.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is something of a modern Shakespearean tale. It takes a look at extreme instances with one family and dramatizes them to cinematic perfection. What resonates within the film are the values of family that we all hold so dear. The film examines our desire to find things in our own lives that we believe we can control. Only when we truly begin to test whether we can or cannot consciously control such things do we find that our lives begin to fragment.

Cassandra’s Dream is so similar to Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead that it is frightening. This time around, Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell play the brothers and Woody Allen steps behind the camera.

Allen made a filmmaking comeback of sorts in 2005 when he released Match Point to widespread critical acclaim. The film not only marked the resurgence of one of Hollywood’s finest, but it also reestablished his talent for drama. Those who are familiar with Allen’s work know he strives to make great romantic comedies. In 2005 Allen became the most nominated individual in Oscar history when he received his 21st nomination. He has dabbled in drama, and whenever he decides to do so, it results in some impressive films.

Allen writes a story about two brothers who find that they need extra money in order to continue to live the lives they really want. McGregor’s character is trying to invest in some hotels, while Farrell’s character is addicted to gambling and falls into debt. While the two try to figure a way out of their situation, their uncle (played by the criminally underrated Tom Wilkinson) proposes a plan. Originally asking their uncle for money, the two brothers instead decide to perform a favor for their uncle whose business is under scrutiny by a former business partner. After the brothers have performed their duty, they try to go on with their lives as if nothing happened. Farrell’s character, though, is consumed by guilt and contemplates turning himself into the police. As the brothers argue about the correct course of action, their uncle decides there may be only one way to put it all behind them.

Like Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Cassandra’s Dream is about what we do for the members of our family. At one point in Cassandra’s Dream, the brothers turn down their uncle’s offer, and the uncle, in turn, informs them that “family is family, blood is blood.” That’s the honest truth, and Cassandra’s Dream succeeds in part because it asks what extremes we are willing to go in order to keep our family close. The brothers in the film love each other so much that they are willing to look past the moral wrong. Again, it’s an extreme case, made real by the magic of Hollywood.

In both of these noteworthy films we are exposed to families that see, as many of us do, an ideal lifestyle that is blocked by choices that may ask us to question what we believe is acceptable. The films are about moral behavior and what constitutes acceptable actions. As the world around us continues to change, the definition of “acceptable” changes, and the families in both of these films represent those changes. Each family shows us that there is no cookie-cutter version for the individuals that make up a family. Family is, after all, what we make it to be.

Final Assessment:

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead:   A

Cassandra’s Dream:  B