In Luc Besson’s The Family, a family of American sociopaths living under Witness Protection move into a small French town and begin terrorizing the local populace. Dad Robert De Niro is a mob snitch and ruthless killer, mom Michelle Pfeiffer is an arsonist, and their kids aren’t much better. Their antics—roughing up city officials, blowing up grocery stores, burying bodies in the backyard—play like a cross between the Addams Family and Red.
Adapting a novel by Tonino Benacquista, Besson and co-writer Michael Caleo stress the idea that De Niro and Pfeiffer’s household is a loving and functional one—it’s just that its members have no moral filter when it comes to outsiders. This creates many opportunities to satirize clannishness, but that satire never materializes. Instead, Besson opts for simple black comedy; laughs and occasional shocks come courtesy of the characters’ violent behavior, which is usually relayed through joking, elliptical editing. One typical sequence cuts from a businessman making a rude comment to De Niro to De Niro untying the man, torn up and bloodied, after dragging him behind his car down a pebbly country road.
The movie’s gruesomeness—severed limbs, bodies wrapped in sheets of plastic, a team-effort strangulation and stabbing—is handled too lightly to ever register as nihilism. Throughout, Besson creates the impression that The Family is set in a world drawn from gangster movies and comic strips—an idea that culminates in De Niro participating, as the town’s token American, in a film club discussion of a certain Martin Scorsese movie.
But because The Family’s setting is a partly real world, it occasionally feels under-realized. Besson has a knack for creating hyper-detailed fantasies; both The Fifth Element and his arty debut, The Last Battle, show the influence of Mœbius. The Family, on the other hand, remains grounded in reality, even if its time period (sometime in the 1990s, because cell phones would cancel out most of the plot) is slippery. It’s at its best in the brief moments when Besson plunges into complete, comic-book-panel unreality, as in an early shot where a hitman in a black trenchcoat, black trilby hat, and black gloves emerges silencer-first from behind a wall of smoke. It's the rare occasion when you might wish a director were more over-indulgent.