When film directors stage a scene from the mid-1970s, we all know how it’s done: They’ll clear everything out of a shot — commercial signage, etc. — that violates the period, and then they’ll plunk down a bunch of 1970s parked cars. Yet what they end up with still doesn’t usually look like the period — it looks prefab — and watching Blood Ties, a rivetingly scuzzy and authentic New York cops-and-crime drama (it’s set in 1974), starring Clive Owen as a hard case who has just gotten out of prison and Billy Crudup as his straight-arrow policeman brother, I realized what those shots are usually missing. In Blood Ties, it’s not just the cars, or the clothes, that look right — even the garbage on the streets looks right. It looks like ’70s trash. (It’s New York before the city got a makeover.) Blood Ties was directed by Guillaume Canet, who made the mesmerizing 2008 French mystery-thriller Tell No One, and while you might think that a 40-year-old European filmmaker would be the last person to get America in the ’70s right, Canet obviously knows the place, and has studied his movies. A tale of how the small-time underworld really operates, Blood Ties evokes the brilliantly ramshackle, down-and-dirty spirit of Sidney Lumet, which Canet blends with his own inquisitive heart. The movie takes its time, and it’s two-and-a-half hours long, but if you roll with it, it pays off.
Remember when Clive Owen was going to be a major star? He looked so great in a tux in Croupier (1998), the picture that put him on the map, that for a while there was chatter about how he might be the next James Bond. He has, of course, done some fine work over the years, but he hasn’t really had defining roles, and when he got his shot at a big smart glossy romantic vehicle, paired with Julia Roberts in Tony Gilroy’s Duplicity (2009), the movie, unfortunately, was such a convoluted, snake-eating-its-tail concoction that it all but crushed its own movie-star chemistry. Now, pushing 50, Clive Owen has entered that zone where he has to consider becoming a middle-aged character actor, and in Blood Ties he does just that — brilliantly. He plays Chris, who is getting out of prison after serving time for murder. On his release date, sauntering out of the gates, he looks frighteningly tall, but also worn-out, with oily hair, fading tattoos, and a smirk tinged with bitter despair. Owen, in this role, looks like a towering, depressed-greaser version of Nicolas Cage, and he’s mesmerizing. He makes Chris a man of violence who doesn’t have to issue warnings to make that known. It’s just there when he’s in the room. The threat of violence comes off him like steam heat.
Chris’s brother, Frank, is a veteran of the force, and we we can see that they don’t like each other, and maybe never have. Frank lands him a janitor’s job at a used-car lot, but Chris, who has no money and no prospects, chafes at this dead zone of low-wage employment. He wants to go straight, but can’t, and Blood Ties shows the level of understanding of how and why criminals return to crime that Dustin Hoffman’s performance captured in Straight Time (1978). When Chris wanders into his old bar, the Ruby, and gives a brotherly hug to the manager, we can feel in our bones why it’s already over: The manager is played by Mark Mahoney, the legendary tattoo artist who wears his street cred like a second skin — he’s elegantly ravaged, and speaks in a rasp that’s equal parts junkie and Don Corleone — and he lures Chris back into the life like a coiled snake brandishing goodies.
A lifelong crook with murder in his blood; a devoted cop tied to him by blood. As the tension between Chris and Frank escalates, the situation seems primed to explode in an obvious way that goes back to old Hollywood gangster movies (the kind where the crook had a brother who was a priest) and also, of course, to Mean Streets, where Harvey Keitel’s antsy, keep-the-peace Charlie was essentially trying to play parole officer to the live firecracker that was Robert De Niro’s Johnny Boy. But Blood Ties twists our expectations around. Frank wants to crack down on Chris — we can tell that the whole choice he made to become a police officer was an unconscious way of trying to reign in his brother’s violence. Yet Frank’s loyalty, the very quality that makes him a good and honest cop, won’t allow him to throw Chris under the bus, even when that’s what Chris deserves.
Blood Ties, in the guise of a crime thriller, creates a panorama of broken lives trying to put themselves back together. Frank worms his way back into the life of his ex-lover, played by the gorgeous Zoë Saldana, who acts with a powerful, teeth-baring fury that I’ve never seen in her before. But to make that happen, he has done something at once sleazy and dangerous, attempting to throw the book at her underworld boyfriend, who is played by the Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust and Bone), doing the best impersonation of a low-life New York thug I have ever seen by an actor who wasn’t raised speaking English. (You would never guess.) Marion Cottilard plays Chris’s wife, who’s a junkie and a prostitute, and while she doesn’t totally hide her accent (it’s more like she shades it — the character is Hispanic), she gives this saddened hooker a believable hard core. Blood Ties pitches and ambles, but it’s got some real action sensation: an explosive street heist, even a car chase through Manhattan, though this one is all the more galvanizing for looking like it could actually happen. It all builds to a payoff that’s emotionally right — which is to say, pure Hollywood. Or, at least, what Hollywood was in the fabled scruffy ’70s, a moment that Blood Ties evocatively brings back.
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Like Father, Like Son is a Japanese movie that generated some early buzz here, because it’s built to be the austere version of a tear-jerking crowd-pleaser, and that’s just what it is, though with a bizarre cross-cultural eccentricity at the center of it. The movie is about a successful Tokyo couple who have a nice life with their six-year-old son, until they’re informed by the hospital that he was switched at birth with another baby. What should they do? The hard-driving workaholic husband and father (Fukuyama Masaharu), who has never felt much connection to his sweet, rather passive son, feels like he wants to switch the children and get his biological son back. Which may seem a little, you know, cold, except that the movie informs us that when cases like this occur in Japan, couples request to have their biological children back…one hundred percent of the time. At which point we think: Really? What seems like it should be a dehumanized quirk of the film’s central character — his inability to see that fatherhood could, perhaps, be about more than blood — is presented as meshing all too conventionally with the national spirit. So even when he and his wife get together with the other couple, and they begin to exchange their children on a trial basis, we don’t quite know what to make of it. Should we root for the exchange not to happen? (That’s what our guts tell us.) But if we do so, are we imposing our own values on the movie? Like Father, Like Son seems a little confused itself — I couldn’t even make out completely what happens at the end, which comes off as the film trying to have it both ways — but it’s certainly some sort of window into Japan.
Owen’s other posts from Cannes: