For all of director Guillaume Canet’s attempts to make Blood Ties reminiscent of American New Wave crime procedurals (and, by extension, the oeuvre of his co-writer, James Gray), it quickly becomes clear that any resemblance is strictly superficial. Gray and the ghost of Sidney Lumet are just along for the ride, adding a grimy layer of old-school New York scuzz to a film that’s too overstuffed, fractured, and redolent with cliché to ever compellingly hang together.
Even a brief summary of the 1974-set film’s plot reveals a near-comical laundry list of recycled plot elements. Just-paroled Chris (Clive Owen) and upstanding cop Frank (Billy Crudup), brothers on opposite sides of the law, clash over the former’s predilection for armed robbery. Naturally, their conflict is just the long-repressed boiling over of friction originating in childhood betrayal. There’s a cancer-ridden blue-collar father (James Caan), assorted madonnas (Zoe Saldana, Mila Kunis) and whores (among them a jarringly miscast Marion Cotillard, as Chris’s self-destructive ex-wife), and a last job that turns out to be anything but. Badges and guns are angrily relinquished, attempts to go straight flame out spectacularly, and every second scene is overlaid with the keening emotional shorthand of carefully curated hits from the era. Amid the period-appropriate sturm und drang, however, Canet fails to uncover and effectively project the inner lives of his characters, their motivations and relationships lazily sketched through unwieldy chunks of expository dialogue and the exhumation of numerous stock figures from ’70s crime cinema. What Lumet or Cassavetes often showed with a look, an image, a movement, Canet chooses to tell, and often at length, with the most heavy-handed dialogue imaginable.
What was clearly planned as epic sweep comes off in execution like an overreaching narrative that splinters into too many tenuously linked threads, brought together too late in mostly desultory fashion. Both Chris and Frank are assigned separate but equally unconvincing romantic subplots, punctuated further by the accompanying setup of one paramour’s menacing ex (Matthias Schoenaerts) as a potential threat. There are Chris’s multiple business endeavors, both legitimate and criminal. Multiple character arcs sputter out as tangents to the core storylines, while the dramatic potential promised by certain relationships—between Frank and his cop colleagues, Chris and his ex-con partner—goes untapped. The few genuinely affecting moments between the brothers are pregnant with meaning, but only because of the determined performances and the inspired pairing of the fragile Crudup opposite the intense, imposing Owen.
It’s in the scattered action sequences that Canet successfully channels the filmmakers he so obviously worships. Chris’s various violent encounters have a sense of controlled chaos and immediacy about them that recalls the messy yet intimate feel of the carnage in Francis Ford Coppola or William Friedkin’s films. And a dazzling armored car heist is especially tense and staged with all the mannered formalism of a Michael Mann shootout. This technical polish extends to every aspect of the production, from the meticulous design to the elegant (albeit predictably grainy) cinematography. Sadly, none of it is enough to counter the overall torpor of this overwrought throwback. Blood Ties has too much pedigree to be completely disposable, but as the evocation of a robust tradition in American filmmaking, it’s still only half-baked.