Ian (Ewan McGregor) and Terry (Colin Farrell) are brothers who buy a boat that they name Cassandra’s Dream, after a racehorse Terry bet on that won him a good deal of money. The brothers are elated at the thought of the purchasing a boat. Even before we know anything else about them, we know that this boat represents something more than just a boat.
Ian works at his father’s restaurant, and Terry is a mechanic who struggles with a gambling addiction and a drug addiction. Not much is made of the gambling addiction until he loses a large sum of money at a high stakes poker game. So at the end of the first act, Terry desperately needs a large chunk of money.
While Ian’s circumstances aren’t so dire, he needs money too. Ian is unsatisfied working at his father’s restaurant, and he wants to get in on a friend’s hotel investment. He also meets an actress named Angela, and he wants to be able to move to Los Angeles with her.
So both characters need a substantial amount of money, and everything looks great when wealthy Uncle Howard comes into town and seems more than willing to help them out. There’s a catch, of course. Uncle Howard runs a company with a whistleblower, and Howard needs the brothers to kill the whistleblower.
The two of them fret over this decision, initially rejecting it, but they need the money from their uncle so badly that they agree to do the hit. Howard stresses how important family is, manipulating his nephews into doing the job.
Ian is more eager to go forward with the assassination than Terry is, despite Terry’s situation being a lot more urgent.
So they kill the guy, rather quickly in fact. The first act of the film, setting up the brothers’ backstories, love interests, financial needs, etc. takes about 40 minutes, compared to 25-30 minutes for most films. The second act is only about 30 minutes, and the final act deals with the fallout.
The brothers get what they need, but while Ian moves forward with ease, Terry is struck down with guilt and thoughts of suicide. It gets so bad that, because of Terry’s unpredictability, Ian and Howard decide he must be killed.
Ian takes Terry out on Cassandra’s Dream, for the first time in a while, and he prepares to poison him, only to back out at the last minute. They get into a physical altercation as Ian berates Terry for making things harder than he thinks they need to be. In the fight Ian gets tossed backwards and hits his head on the table and dies. It’s so sudden and a quick left turn after all the buildup. Then we don’t see what Terry does next, but we instead cut to a detective detailing what happened: One died, and other drowned himself.
It’s so quick, the brothers’ deaths, that it feels like the rug was pulled out from under us. The detective says, “everyday it’s something else.”
This film started with the two brothers, and it stuck with them the entire film. We only see what they see and feel what they feel. It may seem logical that we follow the two characters, but it felt like we were glued to them. In many conventional films, we get a chance to see the main characters in their world, so we can see how they exist and what their daily lives are like. In Cassandra’s Dream it never felt like we were in the characters’ habitat, London, but rather we were inside their own worlds, the ones they create for themselves in their heads.
We catch glimpses of what their lives are like outside of the main plot (Terry’s car mechanic and Ian’s restaurant), but it’s so brief, and it feels like Ian and Terry’s lives didn’t really start until the movie started, like they were just floating along until money became the immediate issue.
The movie felt a little jumbled, because visually it looks like a comedy, and the premise seemed to hover between a drama and a dark comedy. In one act 2 scene, they’re at a party, and they meet the man they know they have to kill. It’s very coincidental, and it felt very comic. I think it also felt a bit like a comedy because their situation never seemed that dire that they’d resort to murder, at least not from Ian’s perspective.
Ian never needed the money, he only wanted it. Oftentimes it seems that comedies are driven by characters wanting something they don’t have. Ian wants to be a wealthy businessman. He really just wants to be in a higher social class, and that was the central story in Small Time Crooks, a comedy.
Terry’s story is so much more tragic because he needs the money, and he resists the idea of murder, but Ian pushes him into it. Terry’s story felt like it was spiraling down very early on, but Ian’s story felt like he always had a way out.
The film is told from each brother’s points of view (they’re almost always together it seems), but to put it another way, if it was told exclusively from Ian’s POV, it’d be more of a comedy, at least up until the murder. If it was told exclusively from Terry’s POV, it’d be more clearly a horrible tragedy.
As it is, it’s a tragic comedy, I think. There’s definitely some humor, and it’s hard for a story to feel so outright tragic when one of the main characters (Ian) is so manipulative and cold. Ian doesn’t feel guilty about the murder, instead he goes to the dealership to get a new Jaguar.
The film is named after the boat the brothers buy together. It’s the last thing they do in their lives together that’s joyous. They do that, and they commit a murder.
But throughout the film they have such different goals. Ian meets Angela, and he wants to be this successful businessman. He really just wants to change everything about himself and become a new man, as if a nice car and a new suit can cover everything up. He is dismissive of a waitress who’s romantically interested in him (he is with her when he meets Angela the first time), and he even steals money from his father.
Terry, on the other hand, already has a girlfriend, one it seems like he’s had for a while. They’ve been together long enough to discuss having children, at least. Terry wants to maintain what he has, for the most part, and he’s an addict, so he gets himself into trouble. He’s trying to be an honest man, but he has impulses that get him into trouble.
Those impulses are part of why Ian is their parents’ favorite. Both parents mention Ian in much higher regard, and Terry seems to have accepted that. Yet what wee see throughout the film is a man, Ian, who’s ruthless and a man, Terry who is riddled with guilt.
We feel more compassion for the man who feels guilty, because it feels like he was never in control (to his brother, his addictions, etc.) whereas Ian was always in control.
It’s a sad ending, of course. Both brothers die on the boat that united them in the beginning. While they were driven by different goals in the film, when the film first begins it feels like they had always been on the same path, and it led them to the boat. It’s the last symbol of their brotherhood, in a way. The boat disappears from the film as the plot moves on, and then Ian only goes back to the boat to use it to facilitate his brother’s murder.
One of the final lines of the film, “everyday it’s something else,” echoes the ending of Anything Else (2003). Both films and both lines suggest a world much bigger and wider than the one occupied by the main characters. In other words, life is bigger than Ian and Terry, they’re just a blip on the radar.
So that ending feels very odd because we’re pulled out of Ian’s and Terry’s worlds. For the entire film we’re so consumed with their goals, desires, urgent needs, but then suddenly they die, and it’s not that big of a deal. I mean, it is a big deal, but we never see their significant others or parents or uncle reacting to their deaths. The only people we see react to it are the people who are unaffected by it, the detectives. That scene just pushes a sudden distance between the brothers and us as the audience, as if you’re with a friend who does something bad, then someone comes up to you and says “do you know this guy?” and you say, “no, no, I barely knew him.”
So I think that ending helps influence the way the film was shot, lit and scored. I really had a hard time figuring out if it was supposed to be darkly comic or dramatic, and the ending tells us that their struggle was dramatic, but their demise was darkly comic. Yes it all mattered, but it only really mattered to them. It’s not supposed to matter to us, even though it probably does. We can’t help but feel sorry as we see Ian’s girlfriend Angela and Terry’s girlfriend Kate as they shop, ignorant of the brothers deaths. They had nothing to do with the movie’s ultimate tragedy, and they’re the ones who will have to live with it and know they never could’ve done anything about it.