Guillaume Canet’s Tell No One from 2006 is the kind of well-made potboiler that would have earned the director a burgeoning Hollywood career, had it come out while Hollywood was still in the business of producing adult-oriented thrillers. With his English-language debut, Blood Ties, Canet takes on material of even less interest to today’s big studios, constructing something much more ambitious than a straight thriller—a sprawling familial crime drama, heavier on relationships than chases or shoot-outs.
Canet establishes said relationships with skillful understatement. The movie opens in mid-’70s Brooklyn as Chris (Clive Owen) leaves prison, earning warm welcomes from his father (James Caan) and sister (Lili Taylor)—and a more tentative reception from his cop brother, Frank (Billy Crudup), with whom he nevertheless bunks. While Chris struggles to go straight, seeking gainful employment and reconnecting with the mother of his children (Marion Cotillard), Frank pursues an off-and-on romance of his own with Vanessa (Zoe Saldana), the sort-of-ex of another criminal.
Even when focusing on Chris and Frank, Blood Ties has a large ensemble to balance, and early on the movie forges some intriguing parallels. Several different characters handle vinyl records, dropping the needle on diegetic soundtrack cuts like “Crimson And Clover” and “New York Groove.” The songs aren’t exactly fresh choices, but there’s something exciting about hearing them used as expressions of the characters’ specific tastes, not just default accompaniment. Crudup, nicely subdued throughout the film, has his best moment singing along with the stereo while cooking. But when Canet needs to move his story along, the scenes designated for this task feel overburdened; Caan in particular must contend with torrents of exposition and emotion as his character begins to resemble a maudlin plot point instead of a recognizable person.
Lived-in Brooklyn relationships that take on awkwardly melodramatic properties are the recognizable specialty of James Gray, who co-wrote the film with Canet. (It’s credited as an adaptation of both a French film and a novel). Gray and Canet do make the brave decision to render Chris less sympathetic as the film goes along; it’s unclear at first whether Owen will be playing closer to the smoldering-loner or charismatic-ruffian end of his range, and the ruffian wins out most of the time. He’s also well matched with Cotillard: Both excel at stillness and burning stares, and in some of their scenes they look like they might mutually burst into flames. Cotillard is part of the movie’s attempt to triumph over its genre’s sad-wife problem by sheer quantity, which means that she, Saldana, and Mila Kunis all give good performances in roles that are nonetheless as thankless as any action-movie love interest.
When Blood Ties does revert to action mode, though, it’s actually quite effective: A well-staged robbery is so climactic it’s almost surprising when the movie continues on after it ends, and Canet remains a master of low-speed, high-tension chases. In these sequences, it feels like the director’s mix of grit and broken hearts should cohere. Instead, Blood Ties comes off as a weird, misshapen version of a ’70s-style thriller—almost as if it’s lacking contemporary examples to follow.