There are so many secondary plot threads and a multitude of characters in Blood Ties the film finds itself sputtering along, stopping and starting every 5-10 minutes as characters are introduced and re-introduced. There’s absolutely no way for the story to work within the confines of a two-and-a-half-hour movie as it either needs to be cut down to two hours or less or extended into a five-to-six-hour miniseries or more. It’s a shame, really, because there are some fantastic moments within this film just as much as there are some moments and casting decisions I really could have done without, but all-in-all the end result is a bit of a mess.
Adapted by director Guillame Canet and co-writer James Gray, the film is based on Jacques Maillot’s 2008 French film Rivals (Les liens du sang). Set in New York, 1974, the story largely follows two brothers; Frank (Billy Crudup) a police officer and Chris (Clive Owen) his ex-con brother who’s just been let out of jail and needs to find a job or he’ll find himself back behind bars.
The two brothers don’t have a very good relationship, but for the sake of their father (James Caan) and sister (Lili Taylor), Frank does his best to make it work. Meanwhile there are other characters all over the place, including Matthias Schoenaerts (Bullhead) as the father to Zoe Saldana‘s baby who has just been hauled off to jail, and we come to learn Frank has a past with Saldana’s character, which he hopes he can rekindle.
Chris has his own female issues beginning with his ex-girlfriend, Monica (Marion Cotillard), mother to his two kids. She’s a prostitute and drug addict, and their children don’t even recognize their own father. Then Chris lands a job at an auto shop where he hooks up with Mila Kunis and let me tell you, if there has ever been an on-screen couple that looked more like father and daughter rather than boyfriend-girlfriend than Owen and Kunis it’s not immediately coming to mind. To say it looks odd is to sell this oddity far short.
What gives the film a miniseries vibe rather than feature film is the fact it doesn’t have a central through-line. This is a family drama and a big one at that. Canet does his best to give each character a fair share of screen time, but the end result is choppy to the point you’ll hear one person give a speech in one scene and the next they’re dead and we’re meant to be grieving. Yet, there isn’t even a funeral, only a passing mention of one?
In the third act, Monica is given a brothel to run as Chris is setting out to start his independent empire, and like most everything else in this film, it all ties together, but the haste with which things are introduced and subsequently dealt with doesn’t give the audience enough time to live in this world before it’s changing only seconds later.
On a performance level, I thought Crudup, Owen, Schoenaerts, Taylor and Saldana were great. Cotillard is a little off-putting as her character is supposed to be Italian, but with her French accent she seems to have a tough time reciting English as an Italian-American, though I wouldn’t call it detrimental to the picture.
The best work, I’d say, comes from Crudup who fits the period setting the best and does a lot of great work with his eyes as he does with the dialogue. He’s the glue holding the story together while Owen’s character is doing everything to tear it apart and the sibling relationship is quite solid, especially in the film’s final moments, which I felt were very good despite feeling like manufactured drama.
The action can be intense as one scene involves about five guys getting killed at close range in only a matter of seconds, and Canet also does his best to channel Michael Mann with a ’70s set armored car heist, which is shot largely from a distance rather than the intimacy of Mann’s opening sequence from Heat, but the scene works.
In fact, a lot of this film works, it just doesn’t work as a whole. I felt Cotillard’s character could have probably been cut out of the film altogether as could Saldana and Schoenaerts. The story angle with Kunis — despite being rather cliche considering she talks of not wanting to get hurt again and yet she just hooked up with a gangster — is enough for Chris’ side of the story and Frank is enough of a loner and has his own shit to deal with, adding the mess between a single mom and her ex-con boyfriend is just too much for a film of this size.
If anything I’d love to see this thing extended by about 90 minutes. If that were the case it could be turned into a two-part cable television feature and nothing would need to be cut. Canet does a great job establishing his characters, it’s just that at only two-and-a-half hours he doesn’t have enough time to give them room to breathe.