'Brothers by Blood': Film Review

Courtesy of Cheyenne S.A.R.L.
Understated to a fault.

Matthias Schoenaerts and Joel Kinnaman star in an adaptation of a Pete Dexter novel about family and gangsters in working-class Philadelphia.

A working-class gangster pic whose protagonist is a more reluctant criminal than most, Jeremie Guez's Brothers by Blood adapts Pete Dexter's 1991 novel Brotherly Love. Sharp-eyed readers will have guessed that the action is set in Philadelphia, and the film's feel for its post-industrial, gray-skies setting is one of its main assets. Outranking that is star Matthias Schoenaerts, whose taciturn character would much rather hone his boxing skills than help run his family's illicit business. But the picture rarely makes that business much to look at, providing some kind of energy to offset the actor's appropriate reserve. It feels rather plodding as a result, failing to turn the boxer's conflicting loyalties into the stuff of crime-flick high drama.

Schoenaerts' Peter is actually the cousin, not the sibling of Michael (Joel Kinnaman): As we'll learn in flashbacks that can feel more rote than suspense-building, he went to live with Michael's family after losing his own parents. His uncle controlled the shady side of union labor in the city, a responsibility he passed on to Peter's cousin. But as we meet the callow Michael in 2016, a topical reference — he favors a certain ignominy-bound presidential candidate because of his alleged managerial acumen — tells us how little he understands about running a business.

Michael's a hothead, but not one simmering with Sonny Corleone charisma. He also doesn't have Sonny's gift for command, but scenes in which he reacts to underlings' clumsy failures don't generate much friction from his flaws. Only a couple of interactions — like a highlight sequence involving a racehorse, a vet and a deadly syringe — make him briefly frightening.

Feeling his power threatened by the Italian mob, this Irishman overplays his cards and gets himself (non-fatally) shot. He tries to get Peter to come run the operation alongside him; Peter's response is as vague as the movie is about what responsibilities he has had prior to this. He clearly knows some things about the business, and doesn't have any other job we can see, but his qualms suggest he's not the enforcer his hulking physique and enthusiasm for boxing would suggest. Even an old friend from the neighborhood, comparing him to his cousin, says, "I always thought you were different." But family loyalty compels him to at least try to keep Michael from destroying himself.

That old friend is Grace (Maika Monroe), who recently came back to town to help brother Jimmy (Paul Schneider) run a new restaurant funded by a loan from Michael. Jimmy stupidly assumed this arrangement was more charitable than loan-sharky, and we can see the fate of his cafe as clearly as we see where things are headed between Grace and Peter. The romance winds up not getting much play onscreen (Guez's screenplay mostly uses the relationship to flesh out our understanding of Peter), but Schneider's Jimmy proves to be the most animated element in the film.

As things move toward a possible gang war, the Italians secretly try to convince Peter that killing Michael and taking his place is the most peaceful option. They make a good case, and when he doesn't bite, have some other good arguments in reserve. But is that who Peter is? As the title suggests, this proves to be a case in which being true to one's family can mean two very different things.

Production companies: Cheyenne, Killer Films, Brookstreet Pictures
Distributor: Vertical Entertainment (Available Friday, January 22, in select theaters, on VOD and digital)
Cast: Matthias Schoenaerts, Joel Kinnaman, Maika Monroe, Ryan Phillippe
Director-Screenwriter: Jeremie Guez
Producers: Aimee Buidine, Julien Madon, Christine Vachon, David Hinojosa, Trevor Matthews, Nick Gordon, Jeremie Guez
Director of photography: Menno Mans
Production designer: Geert Paredis
Costume designer: Catherine Marchand
Editors: Damien Keyeux, Brett M. Reed
Composer: Severin Favriau

R, 90 minutes