Cannes Review: Starry, diverting ‘Blood Ties’ is no thicker than water

CANNES – Fans of New York-based writer-director (and lovingly adopted son of France) James Gray are getting a lot of bang for their, well, Euro at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. His long-awaited new feature “The Immigrant” may be the main attraction, of course, but he also has a writing credit on Guillaume Canet’s thriller “Blood Ties” — a film that might be described as too James Gray for Gray to have directed himself. Between its elegiac genre qualities, its fuzzily gray visual textures, even its age-old tale of brothers on opposite sides of the law, it’s a veritable checklist of attributes from the director’s past films; small wonder it took a Frenchman to make it.

Not that Canet is blind to all other influence is this relatively skilful but stuffy exercise in impersonation. From the opening vinyl scratch that kicks off its diegetic jukebox soundtrack of 1960s and 1970s soul-rock gold, he cheerfully steals wholesale from the meaner-street output of Martin Scorsese too. That Scorsese, perhaps with a side of Sidney Lumet, can scarcely be avoided when talking about Gray’s work makes “Blood Ties” a rather tangled game of charades, particularly what amounts to a remake of another, tight film — 2008’s “Rivals,” in which Canet actually starred under the direction of compatriot Jacques Maillot,.

Between all these reference points, it’s perhaps fair to say that the filmmaker least reflected in its nostalgic tough-guy strut (which, at 144 minutes, is perhaps more of a saunter) is Canet himself. The urgent pacing and unapologetic B-movie attitude that made his 2006 directorial breakout, the hit Harlan Coben adaptation “Tell No One” is largely absent here; if anything, the film suggests the soapy sprawl of his non-genre 2010 follow-up, “Little White Lies,” may have settled in for the long haul. 

This degree of anonymous identifiability (or should that be the other way round?) has made “Blood Ties” a target of some of the festival’s more casual opprobrium, though the film — which was recently scooped for US distribution by Roadside Attractions — does as little to earn outright scorn as outright praise. There’s something agreeably, reassuringly old-fashioned about its diagrammatic construction and reliance on high-end star power to see its sluggish narrative through. The mainstream market has become sufficiently distended with concept-y franchises these days that there’s something oddly noble about a standard adult potboiler. 

That’s the (admittedly heavily qualified) good news; the bad news is that the pot stops boiling about halfway through this 1970s-set underworld family melodrama, dropping to a slow simmer as far too many narrative ingredients absorb the heat. Billy Crudup and Clive Owen play estranged brothers Frank and Chris — a cop and career criminal, respectively, who become reluctantly entangled in each other’s affairs, professional and personal, when Chris finally returns to the family stomping ground after nearly a decade in the clink. Chris’s return to gangsterism (after the most cursory of attempts to go clean) places undue pressure on Frank’s sterling police career, though their father (James Caan) won’t hear a thing against the bad boy.

Women, written in such a way here that they may as well be called “dames,” further crowd the proceedings. Unwillingly separated from his wife (an indeterminately accented Marion Cotillard, aka Mrs. Canet), a drug-addicted prostitute, Chris takes up with fragile receptionist Mila Kunis (not at her most convincing as a shy naif). Meanwhile, Frank gets deeply involved with a tricky ex: the wife (Zoe Saldana) of the hulking deadbeat (Belgian “Rust and Bone” sensation Matthias Schoenaerts) he just put away for weapons possession. 

Boasting a surprisingly credible Noo Yawk accent, it’s the magnetic Schoenaerts who emerges from this overworked but under-tested ensemble with the most credit. In his first big-ticket assignment, he’s perhaps hungrier to prove himself than his proficient co-stars, none of whom visibly spark either with the material or with each other. Even the leads, wearing their carefully selected period polyester as virtual camouflage, seem happy to recede into the film’s evocative rust-and-dun production design, which carries an authentic whiff of Nixonian mildew; in his first production set and shot outside his homeland, it’s the recreation of time and place that Canet seems most jazzed about.

The final result is diverting but inevitably derivative, with even Gray’s own dialogue (co-written with Canet) sounding sometimes like genre play-speak. “I’m back in the New York groove,” proclaims the film’s opening song, though it’s not strictly true: Gray never left, but Canet’s just arrived, which may be why the French-produced “Blood Ties” still feels a tad jet-lagged.