Guillaume Canet earned the goodwill of many with his immensely potent 2006 thriller Tell No One, before the misjudged – and like this film, much too long – Little White Lies came along and eroded plenty of that promise. However, Canet returns with his latest feature, and the busload-full of skilled actors he has brought with him damn near ensures a compelling sit, even if the film’s ponderous pacing and resulting length do detract somewhat from its finer qualities.
A remake of 2008’s French film Rivals – which starred Canet himself – Blood Ties begins in 1974 New York as Chris (Clive Owen) is released from prison after a 12-year-stint for murder. While welcomed warmly by his father (James Caan), Chris is received less so by his brother, Frank (Billy Crudup), a respected policeman who is nevertheless called upon by his family to take him in. Adding to the drama is the litany of anguished lovers sitting on the periphery; Chris shacks up with a gorgeous young receptionist named Monica (Mila Kunis), much to the chagrin of his drug-addled hooker ex-wife Monica (Marion Cotillard), while Frank continues to pine for a former flame he broke it off with, Vanessa (Zoe Saldana), whose current relationship with the dangerous Scarfo (Matthias Schoenaerts) is on the rocks.
The opening sequence in Blood Ties is a gory, frenetic shootout, in which Frank and his team of police officers raid an apartment, though this might give audiences the wrong idea about what sort of film Canet is really making. In fact, there’s probably less than 10 minutes of action in the entire near 2-and-a-half-hour runtime – unforgivingly violent though these brief spurts are – with Canet’s focus instead being on the characters who stringently oppose each other, rather than on the heinous acts they commit.
The various rivalries and power plays are established through banter between the characters, be it relaxed and jovial or angry and threatening. Owen, Crudup and Caan convincingly play the male contingent of the fractured family unit, both in their fitful joy, and more tellingly, their increasing exasperation with one anothter. Though the lackadasical approach to dialogue – much of it has an improvised feel, especially during the banter – gives the film a frequent low-energy feeling, it’s not long before the period rock music and intense dialogues make themselves known. This gives Crudup, Owen, Caan and especially Saldana – who graduates from sci-fi window-dressing to a genuinely talented actress in her own right here – some of the meatiest work of their careers.
A cop having his loyalties tested isn’t exactly an adrenaline shot to the heart as far as crime drama loglines go, but Canet smartly gives us something more, a gradual depiction of Frank’s life ironically unravelling while his law-breaking brother’s begins to look up for once. It is this yin-and-yang, this tension which leads to a litany of ferocious arguments between not just the two brothers, but also the lovers they take throughout the film. Canet’s ambition is clearly rooted in trying to fire off in as many directions as possible, and the result is a multi-faceted character study that nevertheless feels a little long in the tooth by the time things finally coalesce together in the home stretch.
Situational psychology is certainly strong throughout, most of all during a tense shootout between the cops and criminals mid-film, in which both sides end up shooting wide so as not to wound their secret family and friends on the other side. Period detail, however, is less convincing; though the costumes, cars and songs hit the strides audiences will expect, you may well end up forgetting that Blood Ties is set during the 1970s – this looks very much like the New York of today (as opposed to the one seen in the festival’s Inside Llewyn Davis, for instance).
Even as the grand emotional beats hit home at the finale, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the film could have been much shorter, with 144 minutes being wholly excessive – even counter-productive – to telling this story. Furthermore, though Blood Ties will be no doubt marketed on the strength of its brief bursts of action, it is in retrospect difficult to see the film having much commercial appeal outside of getting butts in seats by way of trailer-based manipulation.
The Upside: One of the best movie casts in recent years ensures stellar performances. Saldana has never been better, and the rest aren’t far behind.
The Downside: The film boasts a wildly excessive runtime that simply isn’t justified in any way, shape or form. Also, period detail is understated to the point that it often seems non-existent.
On the Side: Canet is not just an acclaimed director but a revered actor as well.