Blood Ties review

Blood Ties, the latest feature from director Guillame Canet (Tell No One, Little White Lies), is a remake of the 2008 French thriller Les liens du sang, in which he starred. That film was was in turn an adaptation of the French novel of the same name by Bruno and Michel Papet. But Blood Ties seems less indebted to the previous film or the novel than to James Gray, the co-writer of the new screenplay.

Indeed, Blood Ties feels very much like a homage to Gray’s We Own the Night at times. It certainly feels odd that Canet is paying tribute to a previous film of his collaborator.

The film opens with a police raid, led by the mustached Frank (Billy Crudup). The cops make their move on the home of Anthony Scarfo (Matthias Schoenaerts), as he’s telling a racist joke, filled with now typically unheard racial slurs, as Ace Frehley’s New York Groove spins on his record player. This opening sets the tone of the film and the film’s seventies setting well, but almost too well. This scene is so heavy with the period it’s portraying that it borders parody.

In fact, so many scenes play out in such familiar fashion I was almost convinced that Blood Ties is some kind of Tarantino-esque magpie creation, with every sequence, music cue and line of dialogue snipped from some seventies crime thriller or another, just those that are obscure enough that we won’t have a chance to recognise them. And then there plenty of moments quite transparently lifted from other, well-known films, including not one but two music cues that also appear in Goodfellas, being put to work in similar sequences.

The film’s strongest scene takes place on Thanksgiving, with Frank, his dying father (James Caan), and ex-con brother Chris (Clive Owen). Unfortunately, the impact is weakened a little by the similarity to a sequence in We Own the Night and there’s a dampening sense that we’ve been here before. While the acts of homage are a little distracting, they perhaps stand out so strongly right now because they’re tapping into the legacy of the quiet thriller, a subgenre that present-day Hollywood is ignoring.

The seventies were filled with dour and somewhat depressing dramas that had more heartache and nihilism than they did thrills and action: films such as Ulu Grosbard’s Straight Time, Sidney Lumet’s Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon and even William Friedkin’s The French Connection. Friedkin’s film might perhaps be most remembered for its thrilling action but, overall, it’s a pretty bleak affair when compared to the stunt-filled exuberance of something like the Bourne films.

Blood Ties feels very much like a film in the mould of those particular 70s pictures thrillers and whilst there are police raids, a shootout in a street and a foot chase through a train station – which also seems somewhat inspired by Carlito’s Way, another feature that sought to throwback to the same subgenre – but the action is all shot in a very matter-of-fact, classical and unfussy manner, with naturalistic lighting and a colour palette that always leans more towards grey than any other colour.

Much like that drab colour scheme, the characters in Blood Ties are also drained and lacking vibrancy, and as a result can be a little hard to engage with or invest in. James Caan’s relatively minor role is the most interesting, not least because of that Thankgiving scene and a monologue he gets that cuts to the film’s emotional core.

Some casting issues add to this emotional distance. Owen is the most conspicuously odd choice but Marion Cotillard seems to struggle to find anything to do as a drug addicted prostitute. When Owen and Cotillard are on screen together, each attempting accents that just don’t work or sound at all natural, it’s even a little painful.

Blood Ties is not exactly a success but even when Canet stumbles and exposes his film’s flaws, there’s still the air of a noble failure. Fans of seventies crime features, or more specifically Gray’s brand of quiet period thrillers, will find this particularly easy to like, even if it leaves them reaching for top tier examples like Serpico or We Own the Night immediately afterwards.

Blood Ties is out in UK cinemas and on VOD from the 15th of August.