Brothers by Blood

★★★

“Brothers by Blood” (now available in select theaters and on VOD) is based off of Pete Dexter’s 1991 novel “Brotherly Love,” but sorta feels like “Baby’s First Mob Movie.” It’s all so rudimentary, there’s so much posturing, there’s so much telling as opposed to showing and it permeates a distinct been there, done that vibe. In spite of all this, the picture does contain some commendable elements and I give it a marginal recommendation.

“Brothers by Blood” bounces back and forth between 1999 (looking more like 1974) and 2016. Cousins Peter (Matthias Schoenaerts) and Michael (Joel Kinnaman) are members of the Irish Mob based out of Philadelphia like their fathers (Peter’s is played by Ryan Phillippe in flashback) before them. Young Peter (Nicholas Crovetti) is scarred when he witnesses his sister (Grace Bilik) get struck and killed by an oncoming car. Their mother has a total mental breakdown. Their father seeks and gets vengeance, which in turn costs him his own life. Peter then goes to live with Michael and his parents.

In the world of “Brothers by Blood” we know it’s 2016 and that Michael’s not a good guy because a Donald Trump campaign speech is playing on a TV in the background and Michael says, “I’d vote for him.” Michael’s most assuredly not a good dude as evidenced by a harrowing sequence wherein he threatens a veterinarian with his own lethal needle. Peter begrudgingly reports to Michael in the mob hierarchy out of familial obligation. You get the impression Peter would rather focus on boxing as he’s especially protective of the gym he works out at, its owner and a promising young fighter who also trains there.

Peter’s care and concern also extends to he and Michael’s mutual friend Jimmy (Paul Schneider) as well as to Jimmy’s younger sister Grace (Maika Monroe), for whom Peter develops romantic feelings.  Peter warns Jimmy against borrowing money from Michael for his restaurant where Grace tends bar. Peter’s advice isn’t heeded and Michael comes to collect aggressively after Jimmy’s place is burnt to the ground as the result of beef between Michael and Italian boss Bono (Antoni Corone). Additionally, Bono offers Peter the opportunity to clip Michael and take his seat at the table.

French writer/director Jérémie Guez (best known for writing and producing the surprisingly assured recent Jean-Claude Van Damme effort “The Bouncer”) does as well with this well-worn material as he likely could. The movie runs a slight 89 minutes. Rumors have suggested the picture was tinkered with and repeated mentions of a character named Constantine who never materializes seem to confirm as much.

To Guez’s credit, he coaxes some solid performances from his cast despite them not being the most natural fit for their roles. Schoenaerts is easily the standout of the bunch. While he doesn’t talk much, he conveys everything the viewer needs to know about Peter via facial expressions and body language. Kinnaman excels as well. The casting of these actors is interesting – I probably wouldn’t have selected a Belgian and a Swede to play Irish-American cousins, but their Philly accents are convincing enough. The fact that Schoenaerts and Kinnaman swap types – Schoenaerts is often the wild card whereas Kinnaman usually plays upright do-gooders – proves an interesting experiment as well.

Schneider is an actor I’ve always liked who seemed to work far more frequently 10 to 15 years ago, which makes his presence here a welcome one. He brings some much needed levity to these dour proceedings. Monroe too is a performer I admire. I’m a fan of hers on the basis of “The Guest” and “It Follows” alone. She’s fine in the movie, but her casting in the picture is curious. Schneider is 44, Schoenaerts is 43, Kinnaman is 41 and Monroe is 27. Monroe reads as more mature than her age, but it’s laughable when you hear these actors exchanging dialogue about growing up together. To that point, it’s also absurd to think that Schoenaerts’ Peter was 9 in 1999 or 26 in 2016.

If you go into “Brothers by Blood” expecting something on the level of Francis Ford Coppola or Martin Scorsese’s forays into crime films you’re gonna be profoundly disappointed. This reads more along the lines of a watered-down Diet Dennis Lehane adaptation, but the cast will nudge you across the finish line … they certainly did me. I dug the movie enough that I intend to check out Guez’s feature directorial debut “A Bluebird in My Heart” on Shudder sometime sooner as opposed to later.

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