Guillaume Canet made a minor splash in the art house circuit a few years ago with his pretty good (if not mildly overrated) crime thriller Tell No One. While that film was perhaps a bit of a cheap potboiler, it was still a twisty and atmospheric little thriller, proving that Canet had both admirable directing chops, and the potential to make something great. Blood Ties is Canet’s fourth feature film as a director, and while he hasn’t yet hit outright greatness, his most recent displays much more ambition and provides a much deeper pleasure. Blood Ties, a long-reaching crime epic, possesses all the earmarks of a mellowed-out Scorsese, complete with its bracing, grimy aesthetic, slowed down pace, gentle meting of information, and occasional explosions of extreme violence.
Dateline: Brooklyn, 1974. Staged as a character drama, Blood Ties follows several people at legal odds with one another. There is the recent ex-con Chris (Clive Owen), a brusque, mean, mildly sociopathic charmer whom you instantly admire. There is his cowardly cop brother Frank (Billy Crudup), who hates his brother, but protects him as much as he can. There is their ailing father (James Caan) and fretful sister (Lili Taylor), who both long for the rivalry to end. There is potential girlfriend and young co-worker Natalie (Mila Kunis), and bitter ex-girlfriend Vanessa (Zoe Saldana). And there’s the drug addict ex-wife Monica, played by an excellent Marion Cotillard, who swings for the walls with her off-the-rails crazy performance.
At 127 minutes, Blood Ties has been given ample breathing room, allowing each of the characters to be given their shining moments, their own back stories, and their own dramas. The story progresses in a seemingly naturalist way, and its not until late in the film that we realize what has been building this whole time. The central relationship is between Chris and Frank – the crook vs. the cop – and how their respective paths are always overlapping, even when it looks like they’re not. Chris can’t help but be a crook (his one shot at legitimacy, opening up a hot dog stand in a park, is shot down by a sniveling city official), and Frank, while he likes to think he can’t help but be a cop, and who is pretty much a decent guy, is perhaps a coward who hides behind a half-assed honesty. Chris and Frank are both awesome characters, and Owen and Crudup heavily and skillfully embody these complex people.
It’s a film that is, heaven forfend, subtle, even through its twisted plot and delayed catharses. The two men begin down their parallel paths on either side of the law. Girlfriends change allegiances, crime bosses get pissed off by the machinations of one brother or the other, and Chris slowly builds a crime empire; the scenes of Marion Cotillard running a brothel seem lifted straight out of Casino. Eventually there will be murders. The film Blood Ties most closely resembles is Clint Eastwood’s excellent 2003 film Mystic River, perhaps with less of a narrative thrust, but lacking Eastwood’s vaguely aching sentimentality. This is a colder film. Slower. Darker. More natural. Although just as male-oriented; the women are rich and complex, but this is clearly the guys’ story.
It’s been said that American films are structured more around their stories, while European films are structured more around their characters. Canet, a European, is most definitely making a film of the latter school, allowing the story to organically shift around his protagonists, rather than force his protagonists to instigate a plot. Who they are is more important that what they do. Canet is definitely growing as a director, and he’s lucky to have worked with such talented people as Crudup, Cann, Owen, and Cotillard.