Pairing Joel Kinnaman and Matthias Schoenaerts seems like a great idea on the page. But in Jérémie Guez’s cold and meandering mob drama Brothers by Blood, that, unfortunately, is not the case. The problem is not just because both Kinnaman and Schoenaerts give flat performances, but also because Guez seems to have no full idea in telling the story. His direction is uninspired, aiming for minimalism but ends up feeling lacklustre. The writing, which moves back and forth between the past and the present, is choppy. It’s boring and emotionless, with a 90-minute duration that feels almost like a 3-hour movie.
Set in the cold and wet Philadelphia circa the ‘60s, Brothers by Blood is based on Pete Dexter novel “Brotherly Love,” and it revolves around two cousins, Peter (Schoenaerts) and Michael (Kinnaman), who run the Irish mafia gang in town while dealing with some childhood trauma that makes them unable to function normally in society. Peter, in particular, is affected by that trauma a bit more than his cousin is. In the opening scene of the movie, he jumps off a roof in the middle of a conversation. He’s depressed, suicidal and perhaps has already died on the inside.
The movie doesn’t take long before letting us know what it is that makes Peter the way he is right now. Through some flashbacks, it’s revealed that while he was a kid, he witnessed his little sister get killed in a tragic car accident. And the grief and guilt that comes from this has since impacted his life. Also, the mysterious death of his own dad and the abusive relationship he has with his uncle, Michael’s dad, might have contributed to why he’s so damaged as an adult as well.
This internal struggle that Peter is dealing with throughout the movie is what Guez mostly focuses on. He wants to show us that sometimes a battle happening on the inside can be a lot more harmful to oneself than real, physical violence. And while this sounds like an interesting territory to touch on, Brothers by Blood, sadly, fails to fully dive into it. Instead of trying to show us how Peter processes his emotions and struggles, the movie keeps reverting back to when he was a kid. And this happens a lot, for no compelling reason at all.
For a story about a guy trying to let go of his past, it’s such a shame that the movie can’t do the same. What’s even worse is the subplot involving Kinnaman’s character and all the mafia shenanigans. Violence happens mostly off-screen, and what’s left is just the aftermath, which means two or more people talking about getting revenge. This results in the movie having no thrills or kicks. Even the climax, which is supposed to conclude the story on an emotional note, feels very dull.
The biggest problem with Brothers by Blood lies in Guez’s weak writing. The movie wants to be a character piece about how some men cant escape the cycle of violence; about how difficult it is to let go of the wounds from the past. But the writing fails to offer the characters complexity to convey those messages. Yes, we know Michael wants to maintain his power and position as the mafia kingpin. But why he so desperately wants it is never fully explored. So what we end up with is just a one-dimensional character; an erratic man who acts like a ticking bomb.
Peter, who we’re supposed to root for, is also portrayed blandly. He’s not given any liberty or motivation. He’s just sorta there, passively coming in and out in every scene. It’s such a shame, especially because both Kinnaman and Schoenaerts have proven previously in other films that they’re two talented actors who can chew every scene effortlessly. What they mostly do here is just looking tough and sad, or both at the same time. That the flow of the narrative moves clunkily makes everything even more unsatisfactory.
Guez’ effort to subvert the usual mob crime drama to be a compelling character study is, of course, admirable. But in the end, his execution lacks in almost every aspect. It might still be the first month of the year, but it doesn’t feel like a stretch at all to say that Brothers by Blood is one of the strongest contenders for one of the worst movies of the year. I’ve watched it so you don’t have to.
Brothers by Blood is available on VOD from 22 January 2021.