[This is a re-post of my review from the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. Blood Ties opens today in limited release.]
There’s no prequel to Blood Ties, but perhaps there should be. It could provide a reason to give a damn about the characters. We could see the development of their conflict, the tension between brothers and the brothers’ tension with their lovers. Instead, Guillaume Canet’s film hits the ground stumbling as the disjointed picture jumps between characters seemingly at random, and never spends enough time to make us care, or wastes time showing just how shallow these horrible people really are. Coated in the veneer of a throwback crime drama, Blood Ties is an insult to its genre, its cast, and its audience.
Set in Brooklyn in 1974, Frank (Billy Crudup) is a lousy cop whose brother Chris (Clive Owen) is out of prison on a work furlough. Their relationship resembles roommates more than people who grew up together, and rather than deal with their estrangement, they’re each wrapped up in their own silly problems. Frank behaves like a stalker to steal back Vanessa (Zoe Saldana) from her reformed boyfriend Anthony (Matthias Schoenaerts), and Chris makes a half-hearted attempt at living a clean life before quickly falling back into old habits and also falling for the pretty and shallow Natalie (Mila Kunis). Meanwhile, Chris’ old squeeze Monica (Marion Cotillard), who is also a drug-addict prostitute and mother of his two children, is off waiting to become a plot point.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with dropping us into the middle of an active conflict, but Blood Ties has no idea how to manage it. Everything feels hollow, contrived, and misplaced. Vanessa and Frank have a past, but we never see it, and so where we come in, Frank is stalking Vanessa, but eventually she can’t resist his stalky charms. She leaves Anthony, and also takes away his child while he’s imprisoned. Vanessa’s behavior hints at a multi-faceted character, but we only see the backstabber. Likewise, Chris and Monica might have a rich past, but when we meet her, Monica is a sullen, cokehead hooker (Blood Ties does not have the best attitude towards women).
I don’t need to like characters or personally relate to them. I only need to care, and the film works hard to make us care so little about a cast this good. I can’t remember the last time I saw so many talented actors completely wasted, but since Canet can’t seem to figure out how to structure his story, no one has a chance to develop. Frank is almost completely absent during the first half, and Chris is off being a cardboard sociopath who is “CRIMINAL” in big, flashing letters and going through the motions. By the time the story finally reaches the point where it remembers these two men are brothers and that having one be a cop and the other be a criminal might generate some compelling drama, it’s far too late.
After the screening, I was told that thirty minutes had been cut from the movie following its premiere at Cannes even though the finished feature wasn’t well received at the festival. Perhaps this cut footage shows the relationships breaking between the characters, but where we come in for this version, the characters are already bitter, spiteful people who are partway through whatever the story demands of them. Notions of brotherhood and forgiveness are completely superficial (as are Owen and Cotillard’s laughable attempts to do a Brooklyn accent).
Blood Ties operates on presumption rather than presentation. It presumes that we’ll accept the 70s crime drama candy coating even though Blood Ties doesn’t have a fraction of the power those movies had. It presumes the cast can carry shoddy characters whose motives are poorly drawn at best. It presumes the story can operate on the idea of past drama rather than actually showing or selling that drama. But rather than resting on presumptions, Blood Ties should simply know that pay-off requires set-up.