Review: Blood Ties (TIFF 2013)
PLOT: In New York City, circa 1974, Chris (Clive Owen) is paroled after twelve-years in prison for murder. He's met by his sister Marie (Lili Taylor) and brother Frank (Billy Crudup)- a cop who tries to put his brother on a straight-laced, honest path. Now pushing fifty, and with two kids and a junkie ex-wife (Marion Cotillard) to support, it's not long before Chris is drawn back into the criminal underworld, putting him on a collision course with his brother.
REVIEW: Guillame Canet's BLOOD TIES is a film I've been itching to see for awhile. A remake of a french Canet-starring vehicle, LES LIENS DU SANG, BLOOD TIES takes that smaller-scaled drama, transports it to 1970's NYC, and gives it an epic polish, heavily influenced by the films of Martin Scorsese and Sidney Lumet, with a healthy dose of William Friedkin's THE FRENCH CONNECTION mixed in. As those are some of my favourite movies, and Canet happened to cast a virtual who's who of my favourite actors, including the always underrated Clive Owen, Billy Crudup, Marion Cotillard, and the great James Caan, my anticipation for this film was at a near fever-pitch going into TIFF.
BLOOD TIES actually played Cannes back in May, where it was greeted by indifferent reviews, that nonetheless painted an intriguing picture (for me anyways) of Canet's film. I was disappointed to hear that Canet went back in and cut twenty minutes out of the movie for it's North American premiere. While it can't be denied that BLOOD TIES plays great at a lean and mean 122 minutes, the version I saw does feel a little thin on character development, especially as far as the female roles go. Of them, only Marion Cotillard, as Chris' junkie hooker ex-wife, figures into the plot in a really meaningful way. Mila Kunis, and Zoe Saldana- as the brothers' respective love interests- feel like little more than window dressing in the current version.
Still, I really enjoyed BLOOD TIES. The underworld saga is without a doubt my favourite genre of film, and I have a feeling Canet feels the same way. BLOOD TIES- which is striking in that it's a wholly European-film that just happens to have been shot and set in the U.S- is the work of a guy that obviously knows that genre inside and out. Certainly, it plays up to many of the gangster-movie hallmarks , from the period music, to the bursts of ultra-violence, and gritty scenes of family squabbling (which hint at a possible John Cassavetes influence as well). Call them cliches if you want, but I want a period rock soundtrack in a movie like this like I want a Hans Zimmer score in a Batman movie. Whatever you think of Canet's choices here, it can't be denied the songs are well chosen (and less well-worn than usual, although “In-a-gadda-da-vida” is maybe a little too typical), and the gritty action is well-staged.
Of course, the movie lives and dies by it's performances, and this is where I think Canet really nailed it- his casting. Clive Owen is definitely not the first guy you'd think of to play a NYC mobster (Mark Wahlberg was originally linked to the part). Turns out, he was an inspired choice. He manages to ditch his English accent, and plays the role in the right kind of weariness-meets-bravado type way that made me think of Al Pacino is CARLITO'S WAY. I've always been a huge Owen fan, and this is easily his best part since CHILDREN OF MEN.
Crudup's got the quieter part, as the straight-arrow brother, but he suits the role and makes a believable morally conflicted cop, although I'd say this is still Owen's show. I also loved seeing James Caan as the family patriarch. Being a veteran of exactly the kind of movies Canet is paying homage to, it feels right. Again though, the female parts are under-cooked (at least in this version) but Cotillard at least gets a few good scenes in an unusually trashy role for her. The supporting parts are also all well cast, with BULLHEAD's Matthias Schoenaerts showing up with a surprisingly convincing NYC accent, and THE WIRE's Domenick Lombardozzi as Owen's partner in crime.
While I'd definitely admit BLOOD TIES is far from perfect, I still thoroughly enjoyed it. Canet (helped by having WE OWN THE NIGHT/THE YARDS/LITTLE ODESSA writer-director James Gray on-board as co-writer) pulls off an entertaining cops and robbers saga, although I still want to see the longer version, which I suspect may be even better than what we're getting now. If you're a fan of the genre, this is a must see.