Let's get this out of the way first: Guillaume Canet's epic crime drama Blood Ties, a reworking of the 2008 French film Les liens du sang by Jacques Maillot, and playing out of competition in Cannes at the halfway mark of the festival, is an unqualified masterpiece. Evoking the gritty seventies crime flicks like Serpico, or the ones that were inspired by them like Scorsese's Goodfellas or Casino, this film is, at least upon first viewing, on par with its much-lauded predecessors. Co-penned by James Gray, who is in competition later this week with The Immigrant, and whose We Own the Night feels similar in tone, Blood Ties tells a complex story with a simple heart, interweaving many strands involving the people affected by the love and hate between two brothers in 1974 New York. Set to a soundtrack that makes this film sweat atmosphere from every pore of its body, it's a gripping story that makes its two-and-a-half-hour runtime fly by.
At the core of Blood Ties is the relationship between brothers Frank (Billy Crudup) and Chris Pierzynski (Clive Owen), the former an NYPD detective, the latter a career criminal fresh out of jail. They come from a broken family with an addict mother who left them behind at a young age. This event has shaped their lives and the way they handle relationships, both with each other and with the women they love. Given their different career choices, Frank is none too happy when Chris is released from jail, particularly because his sister Marie (Lili Taylor) talks him into letting his brother stay in his already crammed apartment. Tension between the brothers flares up regularly, but after a round of visits to his former girlfriend Monica (Canet's partner Marion Cotillard), their hospitalized father (James Caan), and a couple of his former crime buddies, Chris initially tries to get his life back on track. He takes a low-paying job at a garage to make ends meet and stay out of the penal system. At his workplace he meets Natalie (Mila Kunis), and for a while the two seem to develop a healthy relationship.
Meanwhile, Frank is not doing too well in the relationship department himself, practically stalking his former girlfriend Vanessa (Zoe Saldana). After her boyfriend (rising star Matthias Schoenaerts) is sent to jail in the film's opening scene, Frank sees an opportunity to move into Vanessa's life again, and despite a period of resistance from her side, love cautiously blooms between them. The lives of the Pierzynski brothers seem to be getting in order again.
Until Chris faces a couple of setbacks, that is. After a plan to set up a soda stand in Central Park with a longtime friend (Domenick Lombardozzi) fails to pan out, he falls back into a life of crime, going from bad to worse. Inevitably, the moment arrives when the brothers cross paths in a 'professional' capacity, and from that moment on their blood ties are really put to the test. Recognizing his brother at a heist, Frank faces a dilemma: turn his brother in, or take the fall for him?
The core strength of the film is the way it manages to intricately and intimately portray all the 'ties' between the characters, whether by blood or not. Many bonds between characters show up not in the dialogue, but in the eyes and posture of the actors, when the camera lingers on them just long enough to register the depth of their connections to each other. The way Canet makes the love and hate felt, often both within the same relationship, is lived-in and believable. There is enough chemistry between the various characters to fill a science lab, and even when Chris and Frank fight you feel that there is still brotherly love underneath. The writing grants everyone their abilities and their flaws, avoiding one-note characters down to the smallest supporting roles. A touching example is the bond between Owen and Lombardozzi's characters, and the reason for that bond explained late in the film. There is a lot of love in this film, however painfully it may manifest itself at times.
Canet and the screenplay are helped by a strong cast across the board. When Marion Cotillard's wonky accent is the biggest thing to worry about, you know you have a good ensemble going (by contrast, in his first English-speaking role, Schoenaerts' accent is pitch perfect, at least to this non-English ear). The possible standout is Zoe Saldana, who surprises with a performance that goes much deeper and shows broader range than the work she has done before. Her character's strength and vulnerability are put forward in a nuanced performance that often needs few words (a scene in a bar, filmed from outside so we can't hear the dialogue, is a beautiful example of this).
Along with the soundtrack, Christophe Offenstein's (Tell No One, Where Do We Go Now?) grainy cinematography, compounded with appropriate color filtering, and the production design by Ford Wheeler (Birth, Stranger Than Fiction) all come together to create a film every frame of which feels like it was actually made in the seventies.
Canet has managed to create a stunning film, an instant classic. Steadily pacing the story, forging or breaking ties at exactly the right moments, the French director in his first English-speaking project has a good grip on his characters and the milieu they move in. Look, for example, at the women in the film: all formed or affected by a life in one-parent families or on the edge of the law, often not by conscious choice. Marie, forced to take over the mother role in the Pierzynski family, never able to form a relationship herself. Monica, a hooker and a drug addict, with her boyfriend (Owen) in jail. Vanessa, forced to be a single mom as her boyfriend is put behind bars again. And Natalie, pregnant at the end with a baby that will have to be raised without its father. All women suffering from choosing the wrong man. These kinds of observations, so delicately hinted at by Canet, raise Blood Ties to something greater than a simple crime drama, and into masterpiece territory. The film is an involving, emotional, somewhat conventional genre flick that raises the bar for its genre. It's a shame that this is not in competition, as this is the best film of the festival so far.