'Bloodline': Berlin Review

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival


Consider me hooked

Kyle Chandler heads a first-rate cast in Netflix's new series from the 'Damages' team, delivering dark family intrigue among the gators in the Florida Keys.

With its first forays into original television content, House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, Netflix came out swinging as an aggressive challenger to cable and network domination. Chalk up another forceful punch with Bloodline, a riveting, superbly cast slow-burn family drama set between the oceanfront paradise and the murky mangrove swamps of the Florida Keys. Serving up startling moments in meticulously measured doses, the show leans just hard enough on the teasing thriller elements to point the way to ever-darkening waters ahead.

The first two hours of this 13-episode series from the creators of Damages premiered at the Berlin Film Festival ahead of its March 20 debut on the streaming service.

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There’s a long line of television about the shadowy secrets, simmering conflicts and shocking truths buried behind the public profiles of successful dynasties — Fox's addictive guilty pleasure Empire, to name a recent example. But the far less flashy Bloodline has no trace of soap, camp or even ostentatious wealth. The show upends the notion of the prosperous, happy family with a sober gaze and careful character detailing that reel the viewer in slowly rather than plunging us in at full boil. Its audacious opening gambit, however, is to reveal what appears to be the ugly demise of a key character, thus more or less disclosing a climactic outcome even as the building blocks of overlapping mysteries are being assembled.

The clan here is the Rayburns, who run a thriving getaway hotel and are about to have a local pier named after them in recognition of their role as community leaders. But as they gather to celebrate with a weekend of friends-and-family events, a brooding voiceover from golden-boy son John (Kyle Chandler), a local detective with the sheriff's office, warns that something bad is coming.

All signs point to black-sheep outsider Danny (Ben Mendelsohn), who rolls back into town with a painkiller addiction and a bunch of debt, raising eyebrows by bringing a trashy date to the first big get-together. Danny's ex-con buddy Eric (Jamie McShane) is eager to involve him in a criminal job, but instead he asks John to approach their father Robert (Sam Shepard) on his behalf about the idea of him sticking around and helping out with the business. Clearly, that hasn't gone so well in the past.

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Robert seems a mellow old dude, kayaking amongst the dolphins each afternoon and strumming "You Are My Sunshine" on his ukulele. But apparently that hasn't always been the case, and his prickliness around Danny suggests a turbulent history. Robert leaves the decision to John and his two other siblings, volatile Kevin (Norbert Leo Butz) and more levelheaded Meg (Linda Cardellini), all of them extremely protective of their parents. Family matriarch Sally (Sissy Spacek), who dotes on Danny despite his shortcomings, is kept in the dark while this negotiation is happening.

Little else can be revealed, but let's just say that while the pilot takes its time getting to know the characters, the plotting gets twisty very fast, shuffling the timelines on certain incidents to keep the audience guessing. Flashes of a rainy night in the mangroves (shades of Cape Fear) show a dark deed going down, and episode two tightens its grip, bringing a major crisis that stuns and destabilizes the family. If the writers can sustain this level of intrigue, they have a truly compelling longform thriller on their hands.

The show is fluidly edited, scored and shot like a movie, with lots of arresting aerial views of the snaking coastal roads, flanked by lush greenery and pristine blue waters, all of it drenched in hot white daylight or soupy night. The setting is both a sanctuary and an isolating trap, a duality that evokes a rich tradition of Florida crime fiction. However, the noir elements, while flavorful and unsettling, remain mostly restrained.

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The casting couldn't be better. The return of Chandler and his warm gravitas to complex TV drama will be cause for rejoicing for Friday Night Lights fans, and this looks to be a juicy role for him. The actor's mid-century throwback quality of square-jawed, calm dependability is on tap, but the signals are in place from the start that everything John stands for will be tested.

Australian actor Mendelsohn, who's on a roll after his tremendous work in Mississippi Grind, seen at Sundance, brings fresh kinks and no shortage of danger to the classic bad seed. Danny is jittery, defensive and unpredictable, with a chip on his shoulder eating away at his fragile shreds of affection for the family. A grimly amusing scene in which he unnerves John's wife (Jacinda Barrett) with details of his messed-up affair with a violent woman is a window into what promises to be a memorably off-kilter character.

Cardellini has so far only hinted at Meg's cloudier depths, but the groundwork is clear, while Broadway regular Butz will be a revelation to those unfamiliar with his work. Kevin is part explosive hothead and part class clown. In one of many bits of throwaway humor, he responds to the charge of being untraveled by saying, "I went to Orlando once. But it was too cold." Spacek and Shepard, between them, bring decades of fine-grained experience and authority to the family figureheads. And Chloe Sevigny turns up in a delectable minor role as Eric's sister, her sleepy-eyed, slutty insinuation indicating a taste for trouble.

The talent on the roster is impressive indeed, and the Netflix full-season delivery model seems fortuitous in that Bloodline, on the basis of this sampling, begs to be binge-watched.

Watch the trailer below.