In the mordant black comedy The Family, the expatriate Americans living in France are a new kind of lost generation, displaced from familiar mobster surroundings in Brooklyn and relocated village to village under a federal witness protection program. But for the Manzonis, old habits die hard. Violence is their answer to everything, whether in response to a plumber’s attempt to extort a king’s ransom for a new set of pipes, the pathetic advances of horny teens with pimples, or the snobbish comments of a clerk at the local market. It’s a baseball bat to the head here or a gas canister ignited there, without even a second thought. A comical but unsettling aggression courses through the veins of this family of four – Dad (De Niro), Mom (Pfeiffer), and two teenagers (Agron and D’Leo) – who refuse to blend inconspicuously into their new environment despite the $20 million bounty on their collective head. It’s a matter of blood simple. The family that slays together, stays together.
French filmmaker Besson has long embraced the slick appeal of contemporary American bang-bang cinema, in both his directorial efforts (The Professional) and screenplays (the Taken franchise). He’s in love with the sound of explosions and automatic weaponry. Given his pedigree, he would seem an ideal steward for this sardonic take on Mafioso hiding out in a sleepy Normandy town. That is, if The Family had been a straightforward shoot-’em-up. The film’s remorseless brutality in response to relatively minor transgressions is hard to swallow, even for those with the darkest senses of humor. (The delicate conceit may have effectively worked once or twice, but not time and time again.) At best, you may develop a begrudging admiration for the foursome’s ability to survive, but you never root for the Manzonis. So when the past finally catches up with them, you have nothing invested in the outcome except the expectation that copious amounts of blood will trickle down the cobblestone streets.
The explicit reference to GoodFellas and the presence of De Niro as the head of the ruthless clan in The Family signify the influence of Martin Scorsese, who serves as one of the film’s executive producers. But the power of the wiseguy violence in Scorsese’s films lies in the consequences it holds for its perpetrators. In contrast, the bone-crunching, flesh-ripping sadism performed for laughs in The Family is devoid of even a hint of such morality. It dispassionately plays like a video game with a high body count. Ultimately, that’s not a fulfilling proposition for anyone, no matter how you, uh, slice it.