Guillaume Canet is one of life’s horribly talented people. As if it isn’t unfair enough that he’s dashingly good-looking, has an Oscar winning actress girlfriend, in the shape of Marion Cotillard, but he also acts and more importantly here, knows how to direct. Canet’s films up to now have varied in subject matter but always have a firm focus on characters so the idea of him making crime saga Blood Ties is a tantalising one.
Based on the French film Les liens du sang, which in turn was based on the novel by Bruno and Michele Papet, Blood Ties tells the story of two brothers on opposite sides of the law in 1974 New York. Older brother Chris (Clive Owen) is recently out of prison and trying to get his life back on track. His young, cop brother Frank (Billy Crudup) has just locked away Anthony (Matthias Schoenaets) and is hoping to take advantage of the situation by reuniting with his ex, and Anthony’s wife, Vanessa (Zoe Saldana). But when Chris’ plans to go straight fail he finds himself straying back into crime and on a collision course with his brother.
Heavily influenced by the character driven crime films of such luminaries as Sidney Lumet, William Friedkin and a young Martin Scorsese Blood Ties may not be anything you haven’t seen before but what it sets out to do it achieves with gritty grace. Much more interested in the family dynamic between siblings Frank and Chris the film often feels episodic, focusing on specific character interactions rather than getting bogged down in any kind of deep plot.
That said it’s immersive and sprawling, the kind of film that hooks you in with its period setting as well as its deeply flawed, morally ambiguous and fascinating characters. Chris is a loose cannon, a calm exterior masking a menacing charm not to mention a fierce loyalty and devil-may-care attitude towards ending a life. Frank on the other hand is quiet, a good cop often struggling with hard decisions but a man who sees the world perhaps a little too much in black and white.
Unusually for a French director making a film in America Blood Ties maintains a distinctive French feel about it. It never tries to be grand, instead adopting a simple style of shooting that would make Goddard happy. It allows for a sense of intimacy films of this ilk miss but the script often feels that it’s keeping you at arms length in order to keep the suspense as to where the brothers’ loyalties really lie. The result makes for a breathless climax and one that certainly grips but at times it means the film does lag. But crucially Blood Ties is co-written by James Gray, a filmmaker all too familiar with character-driven period pieces and one who, having made We Own The Night, knows a thing or two about feuding brothers on opposite sides of the law. All this allows Blood Ties to find a key sense of Americana but with a subtle French aesthetic.
As you would expect the performances are solid. Saldana continues to be an actress screaming out for more meaty parts and here is more than able to hold her own against the screen power of Crudup and Schoenaets. Owen gives a reserved performance but one that allows him to inject Chris with a playful naughtiness beneath much of what he does. Crudup meanwhile is typically dependable, and actor whose career should have taken a much great upward trajectory he is from the less-is-more school of acting and brings huge power to Frank as a result.
As the title suggest Blood Ties is a thick, deep and often violent affair but one that, despite an overlong running time, sweeps you away like a hard-pumping artery.