Blood Ties (2014)
127 min., rated R.
"Blood Ties" is one of those skillfully crafted "adult" crime thrillers that would have been made by Sidney Lumet and William Friedkin back in the 1970s/early-1980s. The story trods familiar ground, but it's about the characters and their relationships first and the plot second. With some contemporary American films, the priorities are backwards, so to find one with its head on straight is refreshing and decidedly European. Remaking the 2006 French film, "Les liens du sang" ("Rivals"), and adapting the novel, "Deux freres, un flic, un truand," director Guillaume Canet (who actually starred in this film's foreign counterpart) and screenwriter James Gray are out to make more than a generic, sensationalistic genre exercise in the ways they color their characters and hit on themes of redemption, forgiveness, and brotherhood. In certain areas, the film feels compressed even at 127 minutes, and while not everything pays off in the filmmakers' ambitious eyes, "Blood Ties" is still quite involving.
Brooklyn, 1974: Chris (Clive Owen) and Frank (Billy Crudup) are brothers on opposite sides of the law. Chris has just served nine years in prison for murder and, after he gets parole, he wants to get back on his feet. Frank, the younger of the two, is a straight-and-arrow police officer who agrees to let Chris live with him aod does him a few more favors. He takes Chris to reunite with his two children (Charlie Tahan, Daisy Tahan) and bitter junkie ex-wife Monica (Marion Cotillard), who turned to prostitution while he was away in prison and requests child support, and gets him a janitorial job at a used-car lot. Meanwhile, Natalie (Mila Kunis), a clerk at his work, soon takes an interest in Chris, allowing him to turn his life around. Frank keeps following Vanessa (Zoe Saldana), the wife of a criminal (Matthias Schoenaerts) whom Frank rececently put away. They used to have a relationship before Vanessa accused Frank of being ashamed of her because of her race, but now he wants to take care of her and her daughter. Once Chris takes a job to take care of some gangsters, Chris finds himself back to his criminal ways, where he passes the point of no return and can't look back. Will Frank be able to bring himself to arrest his own brother?
It would be enough that the cast assembled is so impressive, but they're also given enough breathing room, enabling them to bring depth and actualize their characters' working-class lives. None of the characters are shaded in blacks and whites, but are flawed and complicated people. Frank is morally conflicted with that thin blue line, being dedicated to his blood and lawful principle, but he can't keep covering for his brother or he'll have to give up his badge. While Chris gets his life together by spending holidays at home with their ailing father, Leon (James Caan), and then getting married to Natalie, he is back exactly where he left off and maybe even worse off. Billy Crudup has the quieter role as Frank, but he's one of those under-appreciated actors who can deliver everything in his eyes. Clive Owen also seamlessly inhabits the role of Chris, knowing when to be calm, cool, and snakily charming and when to blow his top. Together, they bring weight to a believably tempestuous sibling relationship.
Initially, it seems like there will be no small parts, and then, besides standing by their men or fighting with them, a few of the females have less to do as the story carries on. As Vanessa, an excellent Zoe Saldana does a lot with a little, projecting with a palpable pain the emotions of being caught between the man she might still love and the man who might be too dangerous to stay with. Aside from looking too distractingly contemporary and her Brooklyn accent coming on a little too strong to be taken seriously, Mila Kunis' performance isn't bad as Natalie, but her relationship with Chris is developmentally truncated. Harboring Daddy Issues, Natalie tells Chris to always be honest with her, but somehow, none of his crimes are visible to her. Otherwise, Marion Cotillard hits some emotional notes as the incensed and multilingual Monica, who figures more into the proceedings once she opens her own brothel with Chris' help. Lili Taylor, as Chris and Frank's warm, domestic sister Marie; legendary tattoo artist Mark Mahoney, getting his second screen credit as a bar manager and Chris' raspy-voiced handler; a coldly intimidating Matthias Schoenaerts, as Vanessa's criminal husband Anthony; and Noah Emmerich, as Frank's sympathetic superior, round out the cast.
Director Canet is definitely working from an older school of filmmaking, letting his characters move the story along rather than the other way around and getting uniformly fine performances out of his entire troupe. "Blood Ties" settles its characters into their lived-in milieu and works up more narrative thrust in its final hour, and amidst its slow-burn pacing are occasional bursts of ruthlessly gripping violence—a shoot-out starts things out; Chris spares no one during his first job in a neighborhood tavern; and an armored-car robbery is key. The filmmaking is sometimes of the point-and-shoot variety, but there's an authentic, non-kitschy period flavor to all of the locations. Period music choices are also well-chosen and feel of a piece with Martin Scorsese, from Ace Frehley's "New York Groove," Tommy James & The Shondelles' "Crimson and Clover," and particularly The Crystals' "(And) Then He Kissed Me." Once everything clicks into place and both brothers' stories intersect in a deus ex machina, Owen and Crudup are able to sell the film's unexpectedly affecting conclusion with mere looks. They're the Cain and Abel of cops and criminals.