Blood Ties: Cannes Review
Guillaume Canet's drama, featuring Clive Owen, Mila Kunis and Marion Cotillard, is an overstuffed tale of family and crime in 1974 New York.
Guillaume Canet’s attempt to do a Sidney Lumet flatlines in Blood Ties, an anemic drama about a family split, defined by one brother being a cop, the other a criminal. A remake of the 2008 French release Les Liens du Sang (Rivals), which co-starred Canet as the policeman, this version’s bloat only spotlights the more crucial problem of a lack of energy and internal turmoil in the main characters. The impressive cast makes this French-financed New York 1974-set production watchable but it’s too inert to catch on with critics or audiences.
It takes Canet, who scored an international hit as a director in 2006 with Tell No One, 40 minutes longer to tell the same story than it did Jacques Maillot in the original, and there’s no reason for it, other than perhaps the ambition to make a quasi-epic fabric film thick with period atmosphere and character depth. The ‘70s recreation is reasonable -- there are plenty of vintage cars and pop tunes of the moment -- but the characters never register beyond the surfaces of the scenes despite being equipped with long-festering resentments and grudges.
When big, tough Chris (Clive Owen) is released after serving 12 years in prison for a revenge killing, he’s welcomed warmly by sister Marie (Lili Taylor), as a favorite son by his ailing dad (James Caan) and warily by younger brother Frank (Billy Crudup), an upstanding policeman who’s been prevailed upon to put him up. Chris toes the line for a while with a menial job at an auto shop, where he takes up with the comely accountant Natalie (Mila Kunis), adding insult to injury to his ex-wife Monica (Marion Cotillard), who’s now a hooker on drugs.
For Frank’s part, he broke up with Vanessa (Zoe Saldana) some years back but seems irked by her relationship with brutish lowlife Scarfo (Matthias Schoenaerts). When the latter is thrown back in the slammer, Frank and Vanessa unpersuasively reunite, which promises trouble once Scarfo gets out.
Nothing very dramatic happens in Blood Ties for nearly an hour, too long for what’s clearly announced at the outset as a criminal saga that will explode into action and violence at some point. Canet and co-screenwriter James Gray layer the protracted expository scenes with intimations of Frank’s resentment toward his father for so overtly favoring his bad boy brother, Dad’s rubbing it in by revealing how Frank resembles his long-gone and hated mother rather than him, Frank’s guilt over having left Vanessa (if there were interracial issues in what would have been a 1960s romance, they go unmentioned) and Chris’s resentment that his brother only visited him once in prison.
For such pent-up emotions to register compellingly onscreen requires actors who can externalize their internal pressure cooker personalities without necessarily verbalizing what ails them. At least in this instance, Crudup can’t convey what’s going on inside of him; Frank seems pained and annoyed by his father and brother but in a boringly victimized way; he blandly absorbs the insults and slights without conveying a compelling sense that he’s seething inside. As a result, Frank remains a relative cipher and, in the bargain, doesn’t seem a good match for the volatile Vanessa.
When Chris finally gives up the feeble pretense to going straight, his return to crime is heartlessly brutal. His second job, a successful heist, unintentionally puts Frank in an untenable position that severely tests his moral fiber and guts. Then it’s Chris who gets the chance to show what he’s really made of in the climactic sequence at crowded Grand Central Station that lacks the desired impact both because it seems so dramatically unlikely and because audience conviction in the relationships is lacking.
The unexpected casting of Owen as a Brooklyn gangster proves acceptable enough; the actor has the physical bearing to lord it over everyone else here and he makes the man’s callousness credible. Caan has some good moments as the dying dad who appreciates toughness over sensitivity, while Schoenaerts perhaps comes closest of the nationally diverse cast members to delivering as a hot-headed New York troublemaker.
Having women as stunning and talented as Kunis, Saldana and Cotillard in the cast is an asset for obvious reasons and a liability in that it’s hard to believe the marginal guys in this working class world could manage such luck. The first two are okay in reactive roles, while Cotillard just seems too classy to pass as a strung-out streetwalker in some of the worst parts in New York. Her director-husband has done her no favors either by letting pass an accent the origins of which are unclear until a late scene in which she starts yelling in Italian.
The visual scheme is ordinary and sense of pace lacking in this lethargic, needlessly extended drama.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (out of competition)
Production: Les Productions du Tresor, Caneo Films
Cast: Clive Owen, Billy Crudup, Marion Cotillard, Mila Kunis, Zoe Saldana, Matthias Schoenaerts, James Caan, Noah Emmerich, Lili Taylor, Domenick Lombarozzi, John Ventimiglia, Griffin Dunne, Jamie Hector, Yul Vazquez
Director: Guillaume Canet
Screenwriters: Guillaume Canet, James Gray, based on the movie “Les Liens du Sang” by Jacques Maillot, screenplay by Jacques Maillot, Pierre Chosson, Eric Veniard, based on the novel “Deux Freres, Un Flic, Un Truand” by Michel and Bruno Papet
Producers: Alain Attal, Guillaume Canet, Hugo Selignac, Christopher Woodrow, John Lesher
Executive producers: Kerry Orent, Christopher Goode, James Gray, Vincent Marival, Molly Conners, Sarah Johnson Redlich, Maria Cestone, Hoyt David Morgan
Director of photography: Christophe Offenstein
Production designer: Ford Wheeler
Costume designer: Michael Clancy
Editor: Herve de Luze