Writer/director James Gray has explored brotherhood with real depth over his career. From We Own the Night to the The Yards, Gray shows a deep understanding for unconditional love. He knows how to make cliches feel honest, like two brothers on the opposite sides of the law. Gray slyly subverted that idea in We Own the Night, a drama that went unnoticed in 2007.
Blood Ties, which Gray co-wrote with the film’s director Guillaume Canet, will likely go unnoticed as well, but for very different reasons. Unlike We Own the Night, Canet’s film shows no interest in reinventing the wheel or putting down any personal stamp. When the protagonists at the center of Blood Ties make the tough decisions, Gray and Canet are unwilling to do the same with their by-the-number crime picture.
Ever since Chris (Clive Owen) and Frank (Billy Crudup) were kids they’ve been different. Chris was the troublemaker of the two, while Frank followed the rules. Neither of them changed their ways as they grew older. At the start of the film Frank is released from prison. He’s been away so long that his kids, who are quickly pushed aside after one scene, don’t even recognize him. Chris can’t find a decent job, owes a ton in child support, and has to live with his brother, who’s now a straight and narrow cop.
Like Chris, Frank’s life is a mess. He has a relationship with a woman, Vanessa (Zoe Saldana), who’s previous partner he put away in jail, played by an imposing Matthias Schoenaerts. Frank and Chris are connected by the fact they want more in their lives, financially, personally, spiritually.
To get what they want, they go about it rather differently.
Instead of the “one last job” Chris planned for, he quickly returns to a life of crime to take care of the new woman in his life, Natalie (Mila Kunis). Gray and Canet don’t play this decision as some big dramatic turning point. It’s expected, so they play it as such. The same can’t be said for the rest of the movie, which tries to pass itself off as operatic but is instead overstuffed and half-baked.
At the Cannes film festival a 144 minute version of Blood Ties was shown. The final version runs at 127 minutes, and those chopped 17 minutes are felt in scenes, conflicts, and subplots that are given little room to breathe. It’s a mess with little dramatic heft, despite some first-rate performances.
With the exception of Marion Cotillard, who’s truly hammy as Chris’s ex-wife, the ensemble is strong. Owen does some of his finest work as Chris. There’s a push and pull in the script over how low Chris can go, but Owen’s performance is confident, even when the character on the page is not. For the most part, too much of Chris’s drama is swept under the rug.
The relationship between Frank and Chris is occasionally well-handled, but the payoff undermines it. Even when things run smoothly, the road leads to a kind of comical ending that’s typical for too-serious material taken too seriously. What does it say about these two characters? Very little, and what it implies does not cohere at all with what’s been established by preceding events.
Gray is a writer who understands character, structure, and drama. Sadly, his voice is totally lost in Blood Ties. Perhaps if he were behind the camera it would have more energy, because Canet’s lethargic direction only magnifies all the issues. If you want a good film that covers similar ground, just revisit Gray’s We Own the Night instead.
The Upside: Some quality performances; a suspenseful robbery; the “three knocks” scene
The Downside: Never equals the sum of its parts; Mila Kunis is wasted; overstuffed; on-the-nose soundtrack; that final shot
On The Side: Mark Wahlberg was originally cast in one of the lead roles, but had to dropout due to scheduling.