blood-ties-marion-cotillard

If you’ve always wanted take a trip to the past to, let’s say, 1974, but lack the time machine to do so, you may instead take a trip to the movie theater this weekend and watch Guillaume Canet’s Blood Ties. Well known as both an actor and director in his native France, Blood Ties marks Canet’s Hollywood directorial debut. Armed with an A-list cast including Clive Owen, Billy Crudup James Caan, Marion Cotillard, Mila Kunis and Zoe Saldana, Canet was certainly at an advantage diving into the world of crime and cops in 1970s Brooklyn, New York. Canet’s utterly European knack for creating provocative cinematic images makes this film worth the ticket.

The art direction in this film is impeccable. Every nuance is perfectly set to look like a slightly tarnished Polaroid of days gone by when orange and brown flowered couches, shag carpets, Seth Thomas Sunburst wall clocks and loud patterned wall-paper were all the rage.

The costuming is also worthy of praise. Polyester is well represented and the fat tie selection is glorious. The women are perfectly draped in a variety of awesome fashions without the haute pretension of similar period movies like American Hustle. Tight, high jeans and slightly faded Diane von Furstenberg style wrap dresses make the grit of the film more palpable while still making the girls look pretty.

And then there is the music. Oh the music. This soundtrack of popular and obscure 70s vinyl played at wild volumes throughout might earn the chagrin of more than a few classical composers. But when coupled with sparse and understated original score, the broad musical journey greatly enhances the film.

The story line here is nothing terribly new, especially in light of the fact that Blood Ties is based both on the novel “Deux Freres, Un Flic, Un Truand” (written by Bruno Papet and Michel Papet), and the French Film Les Liens Du Sang, (screenplay by Jacques Maillot, Pierre Chosson and Eric Veniard). It is interesting to note that Canet himself played the role of Francios in Les Liens Du Sang counterpart to Billy Crudup’s role of Frank. One brother is a cop, the other a criminal. When the older brother is released from prison and cannot seem to make a decent, crime-free, living despite his little brother’s best efforts to help, the two become enemies on either side to the law.

The issues with the narrative are hard to navigate. The novel is dense and heavy with character development, as is often the case. Canet had a hand in the adaptation of this piece along with James Gray (Little Odessa, We Own the Night). Canet and Gray opted to pare down the long list of characters to concentrate on a few central ones. Even still, it is a large cast and in order to keep the film moving some development is lost. Relationships are thin, events are rushed and emotional connection to individual journeys is stifled.

The performances vary. Caan is brilliantly and boldly flawed and empathetic as Leon, the father of warring sons.  Caan brings wisdom and sweetness to Leon as he struggles to defend his paternal choices and re-connect with his children all while facing his own mortality.

Crudup does a lovely job of allowing us to see Frank, the adult, in conflict with Frank, the wounded child, who cannot reconcile his love for his brother with his commitment to his moral ideology. Crudup’s vulnerability has always been compelling from films like Almost Famous and Big Fish. Now, slightly older and a bit more rugged, his openness is even more captivating.

Owen is perplexing. Obviously skilled and decided in his performance, his portrayal of Chris is driven and edgy. But every now and again he allows the lunacy to take the wheel and the result is that Chris becomes sort of a maniacal Andy Kaufman. Hard to say whether that is good or bad but either way, Owen leaves us with a character that is still deserving of empathy.

Saldana is quite effective in her portrayal of Vanessa, a young, single mother torn between the incarnated father of her child and the apple pie goodness of Crudup’s cop. Vanessa’s pain is real and universal and Saldana bravely brings this character to life.

Kunis believably portrays Natalie, Clive Owen’s love interest, but perhaps there were a few scenes left on the cutting room floor that might have rounded her character out. The deficit is not necessarily on the shoulders of the actress but maybe a fault of adapting a novel, perhaps the device of pairing a 30 year old woman with a 50 year old man, perhaps, a bad day on set. Something is missing in this performance and it’s hard to pinpoint.

Cotillard is successful in her role as a massively dysfunctional, junkie, prostitute. However, one must wonder whether or not she was attempting a Brooklyn accent in the first days of shooting only to have it dismissed and replaced with her own, charming dialect a few scenes in. Either way, the character suffers a bit from the odd nature of her pronunciation in the early scenes. It’s slightly reminiscent of Kevin Costner’s attempt at a British dialect in Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves, albeit far less laughable.

Blood Ties is a bit beyond the sum of its parts but still one the other side of extraordinary. While some moments have been clichéd and others are lost on small issues, it is a film worthy of viewing.