French filmmaker Guillaume Canet wastes little time setting the mood of his William Freidkin-like adaptation of the Cain and Abel storyline as transported to New York in the 1970s for this intriguing crime saga that centers on the complicated relationship between Billy Crudup’s good cop Frank and his charismatic bad boy older brother Chris (Clive Owen), who’s just been let out of prison after a lengthy sentence.
A dazzling exercise in cinematic style, Canet’s Blood Ties establishes the time, place and feel of the work within its bravura opener that blasts the song “Back in the New York Groove” from its nonchalant beginning all the way up through a police bust and gunfight until Crudup demands the record be shut off.
Far from just a neat trick of editing, this pulse-pounding start to what is a domestic drama more than anything else immediately elevates Ties from recent topically similar features and likewise helps Canet set the stage for dozens of impressive sequences of street opera to come, given the work’s clever marriage of visuals and sound (from ambient to musical).
Whether this approach stems from the fact that this is Canet’s first English language, American-made picture is unknown but far from just opting for trendy scenes of violence and bloodshed cut perfectly in sync with a hit ready rock and roll soundtrack, Blood Ties is filled with gorgeously composed sequences that transcend language to let you into the characters’ lives on an emotional level.
This is perhaps best executed in what feels like a Cassavetes inspired scene that may have been too painful to witness complete with all of the dialogue which finds Frank fighting with his old-flame (Zoe Saldana) before the camera pulls back to the street to give them privacy as we watch them wordlessly argue and make up across multiple locations.
Frank’s fiery passion is mirrored with a sweet moment of romance that plays out silently for his brother in a lovely scene where Mila Kunis uses “Crimson and Clover” to let Chris know that she’d like to be kissed as the audience comes to realizes that this weathered man has been inside for so long that he’s completely missed out on the sexual revolution.
Yet more than just romantically, this technique is also used to build unbelievable tension throughout Blood Ties. From employing The Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” over another multi-set sequence that leads to the unraveling of one character and relying on only silence and ambient sound in two key chase scenes that forever alter lives of the brothers from one shootout turned foot chase to a showdown at Grand Central Station, Blood Ties is a must for aspiring editors.
Of course, crime film buffs will immediately respond to the way that the Grand Central Station finale calls to mind Brian DePalma’s symbolic use of train stations in Untouchables and especially (given its fateful similarity) Carlito’s Way.
Filling a work with Hollywood movie homage while simultaneously making a film that is uniquely his own is no easy task and it’s to Canet’s credit that he pulled it off.
With as much attention to detail as there is onscreen, it comes as no surprise how important the little details are in making the movie work, which is evidenced with how much hinges on missed connections, crossed paths and unspoken words as in a key moment a phone call is made where a signal is given and characters speak a mouthful without uttering a word.
And while I still contend that they should have flipped the names of the brothers around as in no universe does Clive Owen seem more like a Chris than a Frank and vice versa for Billy Crudup, admittedly, it’s this emphasis on getting the mood and emotion right – right down to each and every little, wordless detail – that helps set Ties apart.
The importance of Canet’s artistry cannot be overstated as admittedly, the film’s plot is entirely too familiar as audiences have been inundated with blood ties vs. thin blue line movies over the past few years from We Own the Night to Pride and Glory (just to name two).
Therefore, it comes as no surprise to discover that (even though I haven’t seen the original), Blood Ties is actually an American remake of a 2008 French film in its own right or that Canet co-wrote the script with We Own the Night’s James Gray, whose frequent star Mark Wahlberg was set to play Crudup’s role.
While thankfully Wahlberg sensed the déjà vu in the roles and bowed out before production – leaving Crudup to help put a new face on what critics may otherwise have easily dubbed We Own the Night II, thankfully Canet worked that much harder to go back to the original source of ‘70s filmmakers from Friedkin to Lumet and more to challenge this new school of family cop movies.
An excellent crime tinged family saga – while not nearly as thrilling as the picture that put him on the map via his French adaptation of an American crime novel with Tell No One — Blood Ties is still utterly compelling from start to finish.
Although it’s augmented by its A-caliber cast that also includes James Caan, Lili Taylor, Noah Emmerich and Marion Cotillard, there’s not a lot regarding the film’s plotline that we haven’t seen before. Nonetheless, in the mesmerizing Blood Ties Guillaume Canet proves that a true filmmaker should never underestimate the number of tools that are at your disposal when telling a story cinematically.
Thus, given his command of the material and ambition to turn what could’ve been a simple formula picture to new poetic levels, Canet reveals just how long to rely on words before using everything else up his sleeve to get us back in the New York groove his characters populate to keep us transfixed all the way until Blood Ties reaches its final destination.
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