Blood Ties Review

(2.5 STARS)

Though the film that couldn’t be more representative of a specific place (New York City) and time (the 1970s), Guillaume Canet’s Blood Ties deals with themes that are timeless. An intense sibling rivalry, one between a cop and criminal, takes center stage, but there’s more—arguably too much—going on in this story co-written by James Gray, a filmmaker whose influence is heavily felt. Deception, self-deception, and reinvention also play a part, and while Canet’s drama and pacing sometimes leave you wanting more, the film’s highs are high enough to leave you satisfied.

Frank (Billy Crudup) and Chris (Clive Owen) are the two men at the center of it all. The former is an ambitious cop who has one real weakness—the latter. Chris has just gotten out of prison after a lengthy sentence for murder, and he’s only really out on Frank’s word. Frank puts him up and finds him a job; he also attempts to reconcile him with his ex, a prostitute named Monica (Marion Cotillard), and two children.

It seems Chris is committed to the straight and narrow for a while. Things don’t go particularly well with Monica, but he connects with a co-worker, Natalie (Mila Kunis), and works on opening a refreshments stand with a friend in Central Park. Frank, meanwhile, is starting to spiral downward. To say that his fellow cops don’t like Chris staying with him is an understatement, but worse is the way he’s dealing with the woman he loves.

Vanessa (Zoe Saldana) lives with her boyfriend, Anthony (Matthias Schoenaerts), and their daughter, but Frank wants her to himself, so he sets Anthony up to take the fall for some serious crimes. It backfires, but he still goes away for six months for possession of an unlicensed firearm. In the mean time, he wins Vanessa back, but Anthony’s impending release looms large over both of them—and Chris, too.

Blood Ties feels like a film you’ve seen before, but it never really gives in to the tropes that come with this territory. Yes, the music and costumes are straight out of any 1970s or 1970s-set crime thriller you’ve seen, but Canet isn’t extremely uninterested in chases and tension derived from action. Make no mistake: Blood Ties is a very tense, involving, and surprising film, but all that comes from its characters and the tangled moral webs they find themselves caught in.

Chris is the film’s most interesting character (even if Clive Owen doesn’t give a performance that’s up to snuff with the writing). His violent acts are unconscionable, and the juxtaposition between that side and the side we see when he’s around Natalie or his father (James Caan) is startling. Around his brother, he’s defiant and difficult—not necessarily a bad guy but very unwilling to provide baby brother with the mea culpa he needs to truly move on.

Acting probably isn’t the film’s strong suit. There’s not a performance in the bunch that brings the film down, but with so many big names and so much to chew on dramatically and thematically, you’d like guys like Owen and Crudup—not to mention an actress as good as Cotillard—could excel. On the contrary, the best performances come from surprising sources. Zoe Saldana’s involvement tails off as the film progresses and focuses in tightly on just Frank and Chris, but early on, she’s fantastic as a woman torn apart by two untrustworthy lovers. The other point on that triangle is Anthony—the film’s most dynamic character and the source of its strongest performance. Schoenaerts has really made a name for himself over the past two years or so as a live-wire actor, and all the qualities you loved about him in films like Bullhead and Rust and Bone are present here in lesser but no less effective doses.

Blood Ties premiered at Cannes in 2013 (out of Competition), where it was only lukewarmly received. It’s hard to say if viewers were expecting something more explosive or if I’m simply in the minority for appreciating its quiet intensity, but there’s a lot to admire here, if not as much as there is to admire in Canet’s previous two features—Tell No One and Little White Lies. Still, a good story and some authentic, character-driven surprises mean he’s three for three from the director’s chair and someone I’ll continue to joyfully watch going forward.

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