Directed by: Guillaume Canet.
Written by: Guillaume Canet & James Gray based on the screenplay by Jacques Maillot and Pierre Chosson and Eric Veniard and the novel by Bruno Papet and Michel Papet.
Starring: Clive Owen (Chris), Billy Crudup (Frank), Marion Cotillard (Monica), Mila Kunis (Natalie), Zoe Saldana (Vanessa), Matthias Schoenaerts (Scarfo), James Caan (Leon), Noah Emmerich (Lieutenant Connellan), Lili Taylor (Marie), Domenick Lombardozzi (Mike), John Ventimiglia (Valenti), Griffin Dunne (McNally).
Filmmakers seem to love making gritty crime movies set in the 1970s. There seems to be a few reasons for this – the first being that the 1970s are generally considered to be the last “Golden Age” of American movies – and there are countless great crime dramas from that decade that still stand among the best the genre has ever produced. The second being that it gives them a chance to indulge in costume design, art direction and hair styling from a decade where things where style was just crazier than it is now. Guillaume Canet’s Blood Ties is the most recent film to delve back into the means streets of 1970s New York to tell a gritty crime drama – the problem being that other than the style, there is not much else to recommend the movie on. The film’s co-writer is James Gray – who made the recent The Immigrant, alongside 1970s inspired crime dramas like We Own the Night, The Yards and Little Odessa (even if they weren’t set in the 1970s). Blood Ties feels like a movie that is trying to be a James Gray film, but fails in pulling it off. Gray, who has only made 5 films over 20 years, has a style that’s distinct to him – and Canet’s failure with Blood Ties suggests that it’s a little harder to pull off than looks like.
The movie is another of those old stories of two brothers on opposite sides of the law. Chris (Clive Owen) has just been released from jail after more than a decade behind bars. He barely knows his kids, his ex-Monica (Marion Cotillard) hates him, and is still working as a prostitute. He wants to go clean, but really he has no real skills that will allow him to do so. He makes a few half-hearted attempts at the straight life – even starts dating a “nice girl” Natalie (Mila Kunis), but it doesn’t take him long to fall back into crime. His younger brother Frank (Billy Crudup) is a cop who has long since given up hope on Chris – but because his dying father (James Caan) and sister (Lili Taylor) want him to, he does his best to help Chris go straight – and will sacrifice things later on in the film rather than “betray” him. He starts dating his old flame – Vanessa (Zoe Saldana), who he broke it off with when he was younger because she was “colored”. Her new boyfriend – and father of her child – Scarfo (Matthias Schoenaerts) is not too happy with this development – especially since Frank is responsible for his most recent stint in jail.
As you can tell from this plot description, Blood Ties is not what you would call an original concept. The brothers on opposite sides of the law has been a staple of Hollywood moviemaking from the very beginning – although one can still make a good movie out of it if done correctly. The main problem with Blood Ties is that the whole movie is dull and uninteresting. It moves at a snail’s pace – and even the film’s action sequences – an armored car robbery and the ensuing shootout (that desperately wants to be like the similar scene in Michael Mann’s Heat, but doesn’t come close) and the should have been intense final moments, which is essentially a slow motion chase, don’t add very much excitement to the mix. This is a hallmark of Gray’s movies – which are often crime movies, but whose the action sequences move at a slower clip than most. The difference is Gray knows how to direct them to make them interesting even at half speed. Canet doesn’t.
And because the movie moves so slowly, we are left plenty of time to think about all the other problems with the movie. This is a film that has four talented actresses in it, and gives them all nothing to do. Lili Taylor is stuck with the “supportive wife/mother role” even though she’s neither in the film – but rather a daughter and sister. Still, the movie doesn’t give her anything to do but urge Owen and Crudup to “be nice” – and then busy herself in the kitchen so the men can talk. There is never a plausible reason given why Kunis’ Natalie would fall for someone like Owen’s Chris – 20 years her senior, a former convict with no job prospects, and two kids already that he does nothing to support. She’s just there because someone felt the lead character needed a love interest. Saldana at least wrestles – however briefly – with whether she wants to be with a man who rejected her previously because of the color of her skin – but once she makes that decision, she’s shunt off to the background and used only to provide a reason why Schoenaerts wants to kill Crudup – setting up the finale. Cotillard, who does nothing to hide her telltale French accent, is a woman whose character seems to change from scene to scene and moment to moment, depending on what the plot requires her to do at any given moment. How can she possibly be expected to play this character when the writers and director have no clue who she is?
My biggest problem with Blood Ties however may be Owen’s character of Chris. The movie portrays him in a sympathetic light throughout – and everyone in the film seems to like him. The movie seems to imply that he is a victim of circumstance more than anything else. Yet if you think about what this man does throughout the movie it’s quite clear he’s a horrible person. He ignores his two kids he already has, pimps out their mother, makes a halfhearted, effort to work at a car dealership and get a snack stand off the ground – and when both fail he figures he may as well rob an armored car. He starts dating Natalie – and even gets her pregnant – knowing full well who he is, and how disinterested he is in having a family. Now if Owen and the filmmakers had committed to making the man as awful as he really is, he could have been a fascinating character. Instead, they see him in a sympathetic light throughout, and expect the audience to do so as well – even though he does nothing to earn our sympathy. He’s not a fascinating anti-hero or villain – he’s dull brute.
The movie drags for almost its entire runtime of over two hours. It gives us no reason to like or have any interest in any of its character. It assembles a top notch ensemble cast and completely wastes them. Everyone looks good in their 1970s clothes, driving their 1970s cars but style only gets you so far. In the case of Blood Ties it’s nowhere near enough.