Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Review: Blood Ties

Director: Guillaume Canet
Runtime: 128 minutes

There's no denying that the 70s were a golden era for gritty crime dramas. Sidney Lumet classics like Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico helped shape the new age of American cinema following the culture shock of Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967). However, those eras have passed, as eras tend to do. Most attempts to recapture that rough and gritty side of 70s cinema tend to get swallowed by the decade's long shadow. Guillaume Canet's Blood Ties, sadly, isn't strong enough to buck the trend. The French director's English-language debut looks the part, but it's undone by a flimsy, cliche-ridden script that has neither originality nor dramatic spark.  

Co-written by director James Gray, Blood Ties has more of his voice than of the Frenchman behind the camera. Though the film is a remake of a French drama, Gray's treatment has effortlessly American-ized it to fit the mold of the classics from the 70s. Similar to Gray's own We Own the Night, Blood Ties centers on brothers Chris (Clive Owen) and Frank (Billy Crudup) as they struggle to live on opposite sides of the law. For the recently released Chris, that means trying to reconnect with his wife Monica (Marion Cotillard) and the children he's barely seen. For Frank, it's a matter of keeping his brother from falling back into old habits, even as he begins a romance with Vanessa (Zoe Saldana), the girlfriend of the recently arrested Scarfo (Matthias Schoenaerts). 

Yet all the talent on screen can't compensate for the fundamental weaknesses of Canet and Gray's writing efforts. Chris and Frank are so lazily defined that there's little motivation to empathize with either. To their credit, Owen and Crudup at least handle the shallow material well enough to suggest where they could have gone with better material. But even with the focus primarily on their intertwined stories, Blood Ties never builds a genuinely compelling emotional or thematic arc. Yes, there are lots of talented people in the cast, but even at two hours, Blood Ties doesn't know how to manage them all properly. Saldana starts off playing a significant role, then practically vanishes until the last second. The reverse happens to Cotillard, who appears briefly in the first half, and then gets dragged into a rushed subplot designed to get the dramatic engine restarted so it can reach the finish line.

For all of the talent wasted, however, the biggest offense is how badly it underuses Schoenaerts. Despite his Belgian origin, the actor has the most convincing accent in the entire film. More importantly, Schoenaerts' handful of scenes have more heat to them than anything else than transpires on screen. Considering the strength of his breakout work in Bullhead, the actor clearly deserves a better English debut vehicle than this. On the other hand, Cotillard, Schoenaerts' Rust and Bone co-star, comes off rather badly in a performance that's all over the place. There are flickers of potential in her work, and there are some convincing moments of acting that rely solely on her facial expressions. Yet when she opens up her mouth, things head south disappointingly fast. The clunkiness of Monica's dialogue doesn't help, but the page doesn't deserve all of the blame in this instance.

With so many moving parts to handle, it doesn't take long for Blood Ties to unravel. Though nothing spectacular, the film's opening stretches mostly get it off to a solid start. As the cliches and messy narrative choices pile up, however, Canet and Gray can't sort their way out. The love triangle with Crudup, Saldana, and Schoenaerts should be the driving force of dramatic tension, but even when Scarfo gets released from prison, there's little to do but shrug and wait for the next tired development. It certainly doesn't help that Crudup and Saldana's affair begins with a handful of rushed scenes that border on laughable. 

In fact, nothing sums up the failings of Blood Ties better than one of the pair's first scenes of courtship. We see them sitting in a restaurant while music plays (no dialogue is heard). Suddenly, Saldana explodes, and leaves Crudup behind. Do we ever learn anything about what might have prompted the outburst? Of course not. The film assumes that the production values (admittedly solid) and music will be enough atmosphere to hold it all together. Instead, it almost looks like a scene from a dating montage in a bad romantic comedy (albeit an extra gritty one). 

What's particularly disappointing about all of this is how little energy Canet's directing has. With a few shoot outs and chases, you'd think the director of Tell No One would be able to conjure up something moderately engaging. Apparently not this time. Effort clearly went in to making Blood Ties look and sound the part. Beyond that, however, Canet and his collaborators go through the rest on autopilot. It's not quite a numbing experience, but it also never finds any moments where it feels like more than hackneyed, surface-level mimicry. 

Grade: C-

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