Director: Guillaume Canet
Stars: Billy Crudup, Clive Owen
3 (out of 5) Globes
Filmmaker James Gray was brought onto “Blood Ties” — a remake of the 2008 French crime saga “Blood Ties,” directed by one of its stars (Guillaume Canet) — to help translate the dialogue into more believable “New Yorkese.” But whether by coincidence or what, it could almost be, at times, a James Gray movie. It even superficially resembles his film “We Are the Night,” another tale of brothers on opposite sides of the law. Here, Billy Crudup is Frank, a not-so-good cop (and the role Canet originated), and Clive Owen is Chris, an only pretty good criminal. They too share a decent father played by ’70s Hollywood royalty (James Caan here, Robert Duvall in "Night").
There the similarities end. Where “We Own the Night” leaned towards good, “Blood Ties” leans towards bad. Chris is a magnetic hulk with a thousand eye stare who doesn’t want to get his hands dirty, but isn’t above it. Even Frank, who tries to appear steadfast in his morality, can’t help to, for instance, bust the boyfriend (Matthias Schoenaerts) of an old flame (Zoe Saldana), so they can reunite.
But it’s similar in other, more profound ways. Gray’s films— including “Two Lovers” and the forthcoming “The Immigrant” — are paeans to underfilmed parts of Brooklyn. So is “Blood Ties,” which also borrows his knack for twisty, shape-shifting narratives that surprise, not with shocks but in the ways they transform so completely from where they began. There are many narrative hairpin turns in “Blood Ties.” In fact, it could be argued, there’s a few too many. Gray is able to hold onto his snaky narratives with a style, a heavy one that grasps the story like hands welded to a bull’s horns.
Canet, an actor-turned-director (of the hit “Tell No One”), doesn’t quite have that talent. He’s an omniverous filmmaker who, for one thing, paints on giant canvases. His previous film, the brazenly ballsy “Big Chill” ripoff “Little White Lies” — which actually stole songs from that film’s bestselling soundtrack, as if to cop to its theft — clocked in at 154 minutes. This is only 127.Here, though, Canet is arguably too calm. He winds viewers through his dense narrative, which often appears to have no apparent drive and, much worse, few set pieces. A film this epic needs big releases, sequences that stick in the mind and get you through the gruntwork. But this is all gruntwork. Even a big robbery — which winds up hinging on whether one brother will bust, even perhaps kill another — is much too modest, almost plain.
Crudup is very good. He sometimes has trouble breathing personality into introspective characters, of going too remote, but he’s very alive, even funny. But Owen looks underdirected, and Mila Kunis — as Chris’ meek, semi-oblivious girlfriend — looks lost. Marion Cotillard, the director’s real life squeeze, plays Chris’ prostitute ex-wife as though she’s had no direction, and rewards with an accent by turns broad New Yawk and French.
And yet “Blood Ties” has an affable, strange integrity. It’s a retro-’70s number, with a soundtrack of forgotten hits and head-smackingly overused period staples, some borrowed from much more assured movies. But it feels the sibling rivalry and challenged morality deep in its bones. And not having any apparent destination, while maddening for the audience, has its merits. The note it ends on is surprising, in part because it hasn’t been terribly well set up, but also because it’s about deeply adrift and conflicted characters who have to finally make a decision, in a film that itself has been deeply adrift and forced — because every movie eventually has to end — to make a decision. This is a deeply flawed, easy-to-write-off movie. But one day in the future it might even be viewed as very good.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge