"Blood Ties" has one of the best acting ensembles of the year. Christoph Offenstein's golden-hued camerawork sparks with a lushly textured visual grittiness. The film's detailed period depiction of 1974 New York is so meticulously woven into each framefrom the production design and set decoration, to the wardrobe, to the complementary soundtrackthat it might as well have been shot in the very decade in which it is set. Director Guillaume Canet's (2008's "Tell No One") first English-language feature is permeated, above all, by his skill in working with his actors, each one giving a solid performance even when their roles are underwritten or tend to fall to the wayside in the narrative. At 127 minutes, the picture flirts with the sprawling ambitions of a character-focused crime epic, but its tangled web of subplots come and go, sometimes entirely forgotten about or not satisfactorily dealt with. There is a more complete version of this uneven, always enthralling, dramaindeed, the one that played at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival ran 17 minutes longerbut the skill in front of and behind the camera is nonetheless always apparent in the trimmed cut that finally saw U.S. release.
Two brothers who took very different paths in adulthood are reunited when Brooklyn police officer Frank (Billy Crudup) invites the elder Chris (Clive Owen)just released from prison after serving nine years on a murder convictionto stay with him while he gets on his feet. Frank wants to give him the benefit of the doubt, but Chris is unreliable and not to be trusted, falling back into a life of organized crime that he keeps hidden from his familyamong them, dying father Leon (James Caan) and sis Marie (Lili Taylor)and devoted new girlfriend Natalie (Mila Kunis). Torn between his duties on the police force and his loyalty to Chris, Frank finds himself suddenly faced with a bevy of increasingly tough decisions.
The grubby-chic moodiness which Guillaume Canet and co-writer James Gray (2007's "We Own the Night
") bring to "Blood Ties" is equaled only by watching the exceptional cast in action. Based on the novel "Deux frères, un flic, un truand" by Bruno and Michel Papet, previously adapted into the 2008 Belgian film "Les Liens Du Sang," this America-set remake gets caught up in trying to cover too much ground and doesn't quite develop many of its supporting playersparticularly Chris' love interest Natalie, sister Marie, and Chris' estranged kids Michael (Charlie Tahan) and Robin (Daisy Tahan)as well as it should. What does pack a punch, however, is the core contentious relationship between Chris and Frank, the latter let down and angry with himself every time he tries to trust his big brother.
Though Canet hopes the viewer sympathizes with the morally corrupt Chris, it is impossible to do so once he is seen brutally taking the lives of innocent bystanders (most tragically, a frightened teenage busboy who is in the wrong place at the wrong time). As despicable as his character is, Clive Owen (2009's "The Boys Are Back
") is a dominating force and far from one-note, recognizing the bad choices he's made but ill-equipped to stick to a straight and narrow path. As Frank, Billy Crudup's (2010's "Eat Pray Love
") turn is one of quieter yet no less affecting nuance. Additionally, Marion Cotillard (2012's "Rust and Bone
"), as Chris' troubled ex-wife Monica; Zoe Saldana (2013's "Star Trek Into Darkness
"), as Frank's girlfriend Vanessa, and James Caan (2012's "Detachment
"), as dad Leon, bring layered specificity to parts that could have further exceled had the script chosen to better explore them. To be sure, "Blood Ties" is a familiar crime yarn of strained familial bonds, but it manages to find an emotional truth and urgency in between the editorial streamlining of its various story threads.