' ' Cinema Romantico: Blood Ties

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Blood Ties

“Blood Ties” opens with the needle dropping on a record player, a symbolic gesture inviting the audience back into the past – and the past, rest assured, is the film’s overriding interest. The song the needle harkens is Ace Frehley’s 1978 version of the 1975 Hello song “New York Groove”, which is to say it’s a song re-visiting and re-dressing the recent past. Why, the soundtrack goes so far as to score a first date to “Then He Kissed Me” (wait a second…) and dress up a moment of slow-motion portent with “Sunshine of Your Love” (hold a minute…). In other words, Director Guillaume Canet is re-visiting and re-dressing the recent past, and he is doing it in more ways than one – both as a remake of his own 2008 French film and also in the form of re-creating 1970’s New York. It was a seedy, grimy city that decade and while much of the production design reflects it, the film’s washed out appearance is almost too wistful to render the seediness and griminess real. Consider the film's poster, which looks like a cover from a 70's album that has been re-issued and touched up.

The story turns on a cop and a criminal as brothers eventually cast as adversaries. Frank (Billy Crudup) is an NYC detective, admonished by his father for spending too much thinking about the past. Of course, in the very next scene Frank is explicitly following The One Who Got Away, Vanessa (Zoe Saldana), keeping tabs on her, attempting to re-insert himself into her life after walking out on her for devastating reasons alluded to. Chris (Clive Owen) is Frank’s older brother, whom Frank “idolized” even in the face of escalating unlawful decisions, such as the one that sent him away for a ten year stint prison. Now he’s out and while characters of this sort are then mean to live on the straight and narrow before re-crumbling, Owen’s performance goes a long way in subverting in that cliché.

Owen’s smirk is so omnipresent that other characters actually comment on it, and the smirk makes clear he knows it’s a mere matter of time until he re-engages his past. Crudup’s performance, on the other hand, is almost entirely inward. He doesn’t make eye contact when emotionally challenged, remains noticeably demure like a little brother when around his big brother and ultimately convinces that be became a cop because of his past rather than just the required contrivance to put he and Chris at odds. 

Their father, meanwhile, is symbolic of the less-than-glamorous future. He is down a lung and played by James Caan in a wheezy, weary performance where every look, every line suggests a father long since at wit’s end with his sons and long since with a clear idea of what to do about them. Oh. Right. He has a daughter too, Marie (Lili Taylor), relegated mostly to the film’s sideline. During one father/son/son tete-a-tete on Thanksgiving, in fact, Marie is literally told to return to the kitchen and fix the turkey. Well then.

No doubt the accurately reflects the period in which the film is set, but then “Blood Ties” is very specific in how its female characters are intended to move the plot. Frank locks up the beau – and the father to her daughter – of Vanessa, officially on a weapons charge although the film purposely never entirely concedes if Frank locks him up merely to provide the means to be her significant other once again. “I want to be with you,” Frank declares in a moment more odd than romantic, and Vanessa accepts because she must because her beau is an integral plot piece. Marion Cotillard, meanwhile, an apparent Italian immigrant and the ex-wife (ex-junkie) of Chris, also becomes an integral plot piece.

Not to take anything away from either committed actress. Cotillard in particular has moments in which she burns holes with her eyes, staring through Chris and the camera and straight into your soul, even as her soul falls off the wagon. (Mila Kunis’s Natalie, the new love and, in turn, bride of Chris, however, is like Jackie Burkhart's less confrontational alter-ego.)

There have been accusations that David O. Russell’s “American Hustle”, also set in the New York area of the 1970’s, was in possession of an out-of-control, makes-no-sense plot, and this is not entirely inaccurate. Even so, the film’s vivacious pulse is noticeable (or: insatiable), so much of it kicking its heels like a disco dancer even if you struggle to grasp the precise situation, alive, free to follow its characters on their ignoble quests. On the other hand, every piece of plot in the over packed “Blood Ties” is finely calibrated to spur our characters toward the end point. By the time it arrives, it makes complete sense, but also rings entirely hollow. A film can live in the past, dress up in the past, sonically serve the past over and over in the form of pop songs, and that's fine, but it still needs to feel as it’s living in the present.


Alex Withrow said...

I think we're right in line on this one. I really wanted to like this film more but it never fully connected for me. I know how much you love Crudup, and it was great to see him bring it here. I thought he was an inward (good word) sensation. And my dear Marion... fire in those eyes. Fire, indeed.

Nick Prigge said...

Yeah, the performances were, for the most, completely solid I thought. But the film......it just never got there. The look overwhelmed the feeling.