What to Watch Verdict
'Brothers By Blood' is an incomprehensible cinematic chore.
🔸Maika Monroe is doing her best.
🔸Schoenaerts and Kinnaman give flat performances.
🔸Nearly incomprehensible editing.
🔸Dull as a mountain's worth of rocks.
Something went very wrong in the production of Brothers By Blood, and I can’t tell if it’s any one specific thing or a perfect storm of failures that transformed Pete Dexter’s captivating novel Brotherly Love into this nigh-incomprehensible collection of scenes. It’s a baffling turn for writer-director Jérémie Guez, whose previous film, A Bluebird in My Heart, was a solid enough crime thriller that succeeds where this film fails. I can’t tell if this was an undercooked screenplay, a troubled production with lost or unusable footage, a hack editing job, or a combination of the three, but this is a film that is bogged down and made shallow by such tedious choices in how it presents information that there’s no room for any of the depths it strives for.
The titular blood brothers are Peter (Matthias Schoenaerts) and Michael Flood (Joel Kinnaman), in truth cousins who were raised together after Peter’s father becomes despondent from the death of Peter’s sister. Now adults, Peter and Michael find themselves with opposite dispositions toward the Irish Philadelphia crime family in which they were raised; Peter wants to move on with a life separated from gang violence, but Michael is determined to prove himself as a big player through whatever violent means necessary. The main thing holding Michael back is his impulsiveness, arrogance, and general lack of tact, and Peter’s loyalty to his cousin keeps him from truly coming into his own as an independent person.
Most of that synopsis comes more from my hazy memories of the novel the film is based on than from the film itself, because the story the film presents is so ineptly told that it’s a chore to parse who characters are and why we should care about them. The opening scene introduces Peter’s depression, but the context for that depression is only revealed through familiarity with the story template the film eventually follows, and Schoenaerts and Kinnaman give such understated, flat performances that it’s difficult to discern anything but the most general plot beats for how dull and lifeless nearly every conversation is. The only ray of hope the film has is in Maika Monroe’s performance as Peter’s love interest Grace, where we’re actually told the distinction between the life Peter wants and the life he feels obliged to live.
But that just feeds into another problem with how the film’s construction never comes together, as we’re constantly told about events and internal conflicts without actually being shown evidence of their occurrence or existence. Theoretically interesting events, such as arson, threatening shakedowns, and other acts of violence, are almost always relayed to Peter after they happen and without any narrative weight as characters ramble on in circular, faux-naturalistic diatribes. A theoretically interesting story of Michael’s fall from Icarian grace happens almost entirely off-screen while Peter picks up the pieces through secondhand knowledge, and it’s all so horribly boring. It’s unclear whether the production just didn’t have the budget to stage the events it pretends to depict or the direction and writing are just that inert, but the supposed impact of individual scenes simply bounces off into an incomprehensible void.
It further doesn’t help that the way in which those scenes are assembled is tortured at best and nonsensical at worst. Rarely does it feel like one scene naturally flows from the previous, and this only becomes further complicated with flashbacks to Peter’s childhood that should show his evolution from innocence to corrupted victim of his family’s influence, but they have no thematic or dramatic correlation to the present-day scenes that bookend them and only lead to a fairly rote reflection of a scene that adult Peter enacted previously. There’s no pathos, no meaningful exploration of who this character is or why he became who he did, much less how Michael became his inverse and opposite. To be fair to editors Damien Keyeux and Brett Reed, this truly seems like an impossible film to beat into any kind of cohesive narrative shape with the footage at their disposal, so the fact that it even vaguely gestures toward the plot construction it aspires to is a noteworthy feat.
I take absolutely no pleasure in ripping Brothers By Blood apart like this, but it’s simply unavoidable for how much of a tortuous mess it is. It isn’t even egregious in the fun way that bad films often are, since it never crosses the line into farcical ineptitude. It’s only a mind-numbing chore, entirely devoid of spectacle or emotional nuance, limping along on the half-remembered plot of its source material and a bucket of strung-together conversations that push it just up to the ninety-minute mark. It’s the hollow husk of a film, a scarecrow without any stuffing, holding a recognizable shape but falling apart upon the most cursory disturbance. What a waste of a fine story.
Brothers By Blood is available on VOD on January 22, 2021.
Leigh Monson has been a professional film critic and writer for six years, with bylines at Birth.Movies.Death., SlashFilm and Polygon. Attorney by day, cinephile by night and delicious snack by mid-afternoon, Leigh loves queer cinema and deconstructing genre tropes. If you like insights into recent films and love stupid puns, you can follow them on Twitter.