The Family opens with the cold-blooded murder of a (presumably) innocent family by a mafia hitman, who is searching for a mob informant in witness protection and willing to slaughter anyone who come close. I was immediately reminded of the stark opening scenes of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, which featured Henry Fonda ruthlessly murdering a family of Irish immigrants.
But something’s off. The filmmakers are focused on style and pizzazz, and the horrific nature of what is happening is never fully realized. There’s no identification with the victims, no commentary on the violence; in contrast to what we’re seeing on screen, the film is attempting to convey some kind of light, half-serious atmosphere. The rest of the film is similarly tone deaf, unsure if it’s supposed to be a drama or a comedy.
That’s a surprise coming from director Luc Besson, who can more-than-capably handle genre drama (Léon: The Professional, La Femme Nikita) and genre comedy (The Fifth Element) but fails to blend the two together here. Léon featured some similar material in the slaughter of the lead character’s family; we didn’t sympathize with them, but the result of the violence – and its impact on the young lead – was horrifyingly rendered.
The Family, meanwhile, is some kind of loopy fish-out-of-water comedy that tries – and fails – to blend the real-world consequences of its setting into a light-hearted frame. In terms of tone, think My Blue Heaven meets The Sopranos.
Still, it’s always a pleasure to see star Robert De Niro return to this kind of role. He stars as “Fred Blake”, an ex-mafioso who has informed on his bosses and gone into the witness protection program with his family. His cover is that he’s a writer, and a sequence in which he discusses Goodfellas is a standout: De Niro doesn’t have much to say, but watching him turn the film over in his head is one of the film’s highlights.
The Blakes have been relocated to Normandy, France, after causing trouble in their previous residence. Despite the setting, there is precious little French spoken throughout the movie – all of the locals seem to speak perfect English. Watching the family is a three-man FBI team led by Robert Stansfield, played by Tommy Lee Jones, who shares a nice rapport with De Niro – the film really comes alive whenever they’re on screen together.
Of course, the Blakes are no ordinary family: they’re a band of raving sociopaths. Fred buries a body in the backyard during his first night in the new place before leaving a trail of blood in his quest to get clean water; mom Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer) sets fire to the local food shop; daughter Belle (Dianna Agron) beats up a boy who tries to hit on her; and son Warren (John D’Leo) slowly calculates his revenge on the high school bully.
The nature of these characters makes it hard to identify with or care about them – a problem for The Family when it wants us to care about their survival during an action climax that threatens not only murder, but also suicide and rape. That’s a shame, because the actors are good here: Pfeiffer’s performance, in particular, is so effective that it belongs in another movie altogether.
The Family is Besson’s first American feature since 1999’s The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, though he’s served as producer on a number of action films including Unleashed, Taken, From Paris with Love, and Colombiana. Clearly, this is no longer the same steady hand that put together Léon.
Pet peeve: black & white stock footage has been horizontally stretched from a 4:3 aspect ratio to fit the screen’s widescreen scope.