If there is any movie this year at Cannes that is absolutely brimming with promise on paper, it’s Guillaume Canet‘s “Blood Ties.” With an extended cast featuring Clive Owen, Billy Crudup, Mila Kunis, Matthias Schoenaerts, Zoe Saldana, James Caan, Marion Cotillard, Noah Emmerich and Lili Taylor among others along with a script co-written by James Gray, one wonders how it could go wrong. And while “Blood Ties” isn’t a disaster, it’s certainly a mess, a sprawling crime saga that endeavours to evoke the great character-driven movies of the 1970s, but never quite lives up to its epic scope.
Playing out over two-and-a-half very long hours, there are enough plots, subplots and side-stories in the film to fill an entire season of a TV series. But here are the basics: Chris (Owen) is just out of the joint, trying to go straight and essentially do right by his cop brother Frank (Crudup), but he’s got a messy past to deal with, including making amends with Monica (Cotillard), a prostitute and mother to his children. Meanwhile, Chris falls into a relationship with Natalie (Kunis), a girl he meets during a stint working at a garage. Frank tries desperately to vouch for his brother to his cop pals, who suspect he’s going fall back into the life of crime, while he enters a romance with Vanessa (Saldana), an ex-girlfriend whose boyfriend Scarfo (Schoenaerts) he recently busted and sent to jail. Got all that? And of course, all these threads will eventually intersect and overlap.
But with so much narrative to juggle, Canet’s film never has a moment to breathe. The film plows headlong into its story, but the emotional weight it wants to carry never has a moment to settle for it’s gravity to be felt. The film’s opening suggests that this will be Frank’s story, but the movie spends such an inordinate amount of time detailing the movements of Chris, and expanding the characters in his universe, that Frank is left somewhat to the side. And if our instincts are to side with Chris, he’s mostly unlikeable, a vicious snarling killer at times — to the point where we wonder why Chris is continually eager to seek his redemption and forgiveness. As the film’s title suggests, family bonds play an important role, but even those have their limit.
To be sure, the movie’s overriding themes are ambitious, with broken promises and fractured loyalty informing many of the storylines, but “Blood Ties” never seems to settle on a tone. A gritty and raw emotional tenor in some scenes jars against others where songs by Ace Frehley, Cream, Tommy James and The Crystals try to unsuccessfully evoke a Martin Scorsese-style cool. The sheer amount of characters and strings of story to compress into the movie results in some haphazard editing, including a pretty egregious moment where one character is alive in a scene and literally dead in the next, with no transition or explanation. One wonders if Canet was obligated to deliver the movie under two and a half hours and struggled to do so.
And yet for its many flaws and extraneous elements, Canet makes the most and gets a lot out of his cast. Clive Owen hasn’t been this good in a long time, and with a meaty lead and complex character, he runs with it, delivering Chris with smarmy, snake-oil charm and genuine menace. Billy Crudup is very good as well as his emotionally haunted and vulnerable brother, also trying to clean up his past, while James Caan also shines playing the father who is often caught between the two. And the always reliable Noah Emmerich is solid as Frank’s boss, who tries to be sympathetic to the plight of Frank being caught in the whirlpool of his brother, while it’s always nice to Domenick Lombardozzi (Herc!), here giving a nice turn as Chris’ best bud. And yet, even these turns have their moments of histrionics or over-pitched line readings, which render some sequences on the borderline of farce.
A remake of the 2008 film “Les Liens De Sang” (which should be noted, ran nearly 40 minutes shorter than this movie), that starred Canet, he explains in the press notes that he had decided to redo that film, because it was one he would have enjoyed to direct and he was wary of it getting remade elsewhere (Ridley Scott was circling). Even more, he liked his work on ‘Sang,’ and figured by shepherding this project himself, he could have the full control that might not be afforded to him if he just signed to any other Hollywood project. But it seems that authorial space got the best of Canet and allowed him to overindulge, where restraint in nearly every component — the script, soundtrack, editing — would have done wonders.
“Blood Ties” is a curious film where if you were to remove any of the crucial parts, it would splinter, yet put all together, it kind of works, in its own wildly uneven way. There is a different and possibly shorter edit of this movie that is probably much better, but the film is still compelling and watchable, if only because the main thrust of two brothers inevitably caught in each other’s various spirals is fascinating. But ultimately, the final result can’t help but be a disappointment. [C]