Mobsters’ opulent lifestyles are typically painted with a double-edged brush onscreen. While revered classics like Goodfellas may indulge in the criminal’s bounty of luxuries, these films always reveal the unavoidable pit of emptiness and death waiting around the corner. The latest mob drama Brothers By Blood avoids that duality altogether, entrenching its viewers in the grimy mucky-muck of the Philadelphia gang scene. Writer/director Jérémie Guez’s film thrives upon its well-thought circumstances, spinning a meditative web on crime and the cicular toll it often takes.
Based on Peter Dexter’s Brotherly Love, Brother’s By Blood follows Peter (Joel Kinnaman) and Michael (Matthias Schoenaerts), two cousins raised to take over the family nefarious family business. While Peter embraces the taxing grind with a wicked sense of self-importance, Michael looks to drift away from a lifestyle that has broken his family in the process.
Brothers By Blood certainly doesn’t sell itself well at first glance. Guez’s opening frames introduce a string of familiar mob movie mechanics that set a seemingly predictable roadmap for what’s to come. While Guez’s story never becomes all that inventive, the adept writer/director lays its all-too-familiar events out with thoughtful reflection. This isn’t a film about the high-steaks moments, rather opting to depict the menial cruelty behind their day-to-day routine. As we see Peter continually beat down the innocent, the audience feels Michael’s painful discontentment continuining to grow. Paired alongside a flashback subplot connecting the protagonists to their violent forefathers, Brothers effectively digs its heel into the casual callousness permeating through their broken family structure.
Guez’s no-thrills direction helps establish his familiar plotting into an astute character study. His minimalist hand allows the setting’s dour reality to take center stage over distracting creative flairs. Brothers by Blood is also boosted by two dedicated performances from its central stars. This may just be Joel Kinnaman’s best performance to date, with the usually stoic actor transforming into an unrelentingly twitchy gangster. His aggressive bravado sells Peter’s shallow fixation towards grandstanding over those around him. Matthias Schoenaerts’ subdued skillset makes a perfect juxtaposition to Peter’s boisterous presence. The wildly-underrated character actor sensitively taps into Michael’s demons with well-conveyed confliction.
Kinnaman and Schoenaerts keep the narrative engaging even when it’s not up to their talents. While I appreciate Guez’s search for substantive ruminations, his button-tight 90-minute runtime deserves more room to breathe. A bevy of simplistic subplots (Maika Monroe is given little to do as a thankless love interest) ultimately work to detract from the central narrative’s down-to-earth strengths. If the dynamics weren’t quite so compacted, they could have grown into something far more substantial.
Even with some messy misgivings, Brothers by Blood elicits a more personally-drawn tale than your typical mob movie. If anything, this serves as another reminder of Schoenaerts remarkably subdued abilities.
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