A pair of outstanding performances by Matthias Schoenaerts and Joel Kinnaman, along with some solid support, aren’t quite enough to overcome a near-total lack of forward story momentum in Brothers by Blood, a new crime drama now streaming on select services including iTunes.
Directed by Jérémie Guez from Peter Dexter’s 1991 novel Brotherly Love, Brothers by Blood tells the story of two cousins of Irish heritage who exert control over Philadelphia trade unions in cooperation with the local Italian mafia.
Schoenaerts plays the world-weary Peter, who has never gotten over the death of his sister as a child and wants little to do with the family business; he spends most of his time at the local gym, though his role beyond watching young fighters from behind the ropes is unspecified. In flashbacks, we see the effect his sister’s death had on his immediate family, especially his father, played by Ryan Phillipe.
Kinnaman plays the brash and borderline unhinged Michael, Peter’s cousin-cum-brother and the current head of Philly family dealings that date back to their grandparents. After encroachment from the local crime boss Bono (Antoni Corone), Michael prepares to go to war.
But while there are mafia hits, attempted assassinations, and buildings burned to the ground, all of that mob movie action takes place offscreen: Brothers by Blood is obsessively focused on the titular relationship between the two leads, so much so that it forgets to deliver anything resembling an engaging narrative.
To that effect, a large portion of Brothers by Blood is dedicated to Peter’s non-family friend Jimmy (Paul Schneider), a restaurateur who borrowed money from Michael, and his sister Grace (Maika Monroe). Schneider and Monroe both offer up empathetic supporting performances, but are of only tertiary interest to what should be the central story here.
But the two leading performances are almost enough to warrant giving Brothers by Blood a watch as an acting showcase. The always-magnetic Schoenaerts carries the film as best he can as a lightweight Michael Corleone, but Kinnaman is the real revelation: cast against type as a scumbag bully, he inhabits the the role with the menace of a junkyard dog, and feels like he could break off the chain at any moment.
Brothers by Blood might be best described as a European arthouse take on a familiar American genre. That’s fitting: writer-director Guez and his two leads are all EU imports. They’ve managed to create something that looks and feels more authentic than most Hollywood takes on the genre, but fails to deliver the expected fireworks.