January 31, 2021
by Carla Hay
Directed by Jérémie Guez
Culture Representation: Taking place in Philadelphia, the crime drama “Brothers by Blood” features an almost all-white cast (with a few Latinos) representing the working-class, the middle-class and the criminal underground.
Culture Clash: Two cousins who work for the Irish mobsters in Philadelphia have their loyalties tested due to family secrets and involvement with Italian mobsters.
Culture Audience: “Brothers by Blood” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching generic and tedious movies about “thug life.”
“Brothers by Blood” makes a half-hearted attempt to be a compelling crime drama, but the movie still ends up being formulaic and forgettable. It’s one of those mobster movies where two family members have an up-and-down relationship that propels much of what happens in the story. The problem is that all of the characters in the movie are derivative of other characters in much-better mafia films. “Brothers by Blood” is essentially a cheap wannabe Martin Scorsese gangster film.
Written and directed by Jérémie Guez, “Brothers by Blood” is based on Peter Dexter’s novel “Brotherly Love.” The original title of the movie was “The Sound of Philadelphia” (the city where the movie is based), and it’s easy to see why the title was changed, because “The Sound of Philadelphia” could mislead people into thinking it’s a music-oriented movie. Philadelphia is nicknamed the City of Brotherly Love, but the only love in this movie is tainted by brutal crimes and paranoia about betrayal.
The two main characters in “Brothers by Blood” are cousins Peter (played by Matthias Schoenaerts) and Michael (played by Joel Kinnaman), who own a small construction business that’s really a money-laundering front for the illegal work that the cousins do for the Irish mafia in Philadelphia. Peter is the introverted, level-headed cousin, while Michael is the extroverted, hot-headed cousin. Crime dramas often have a cliché of opposite personalities who have to work together and often clash with each other. “Blood Brothers” leans into this cliché hard enough to the point of over-reliance and stifling any depth for other parts of the story.
It’s very easy to see where this movie is going to go, once it’s established that Michael has a tendency to make impulsive and dumb decisions. About 70% of “Brothers by Blood” is a monotonous plot repetition of Michael doing idiotic things, while Peter tries to smooth things over and clean up Michael’s mess. Most of the movie takes place in 2016, but there are several flashbacks to Peter’s and Michael’s childhood, shown from Peter’s perspective.
Michael is impulsive and erratic, but Peter isn’t exactly mentally stable either. The opening scene shows that Peter has suicidal tendencies. In this nighttime scene, Michael and Peter are on the rooftop of one of their construction sites and listening to a friend drone on about a proctology exam that he recently had. (Yes, it’s that kind of movie.)
Peter steps onto the edge of the roof and suddenly jumps. Michael and the friend race to the street and see that Peter has landed in a very large pile of garbage and hasn’t been physically hurt. While their buddy is freaking out, Peter offers no explanation for why he jumped, while Michael says nonchalantly about Peter’s disturbing jump: “He does that all the time.”
It’s shown early in the movie that Michael and Peter have shady dealings with a local councilman named Taylor (played by Tim Ahern), who tells the cousins that he’s under ethical scrutiny for hiring six of his relatives, so he had to cut these family members loose from his employment. Taylor asks Michael and Peter to find jobs for these relatives at Michael and Peter’s construction company, even if these relatives aren’t qualified. During this office meeting with Taylor, a Republican presidential debate is shown on TV, and Michael predicts that Donald Trump is going to win the election.
One night, Peter and Michael end up drinking at a restaurant/bar owned by their friend Jimmy (played by Paul Schneider), who confides in Peter that he borrowed a lot of money from Michael to keep Jimmy’s business afloat. Peter tells Jimmy it’s a mistake to be in debt to Michael, but Jimmy is too drunk at the moment to heed any warnings. It’s later revealed that Michael has his own money problems that will get the cousins into trouble.
While they’re at the bar, Jimmy introduces his younger sister Grace (played by Maika Monroe) to Peter and Michael. She’s recently arrived from out of town, and Jimmy has given her a job as a bartender. Michael immediately flirts with Grace. However, Peter and Grace eye each other in a way that it’s obvious that these two will end up together in some way later in the movie.
“Brothers by Blood” also has poorly written subplots about Peter’s and Michael’s business interests aside from their construction company and thugging around with mobsters. Peter wants to possibly invest in boxing. He goes to a local boxing gym, where his acquaintance Carlos (played by Carlos Schram) is training a promising young boxer named Ryan (played by Tarek Hamite), who is living with Carlos because Ryan’s father is a “crackhead,” according to Carlos.
Michael is more interested in investing in horse racing. He’s bought a horse for $80,000, with the hope that the horse can be trained into becoming a champion. But something happens with Michael’s horse-racing investment, and how he handles it shows how much he’s an out-of-control loose cannon. In another scene in the movie, Michael can’t stand the thought of Peter being successful at anything without him, so Michael makes their hanger-on friend Leonard, nicknamed Lenny (played by James Nelson-Joyce), box Ryan in the ring. Lenny quickly and soundly gets beaten by Ryan, and that defeat aggravates Michael, who holds grudges.
Because of some debts and double-crossing, Michael has managed to anger the Italian mafia in Philadelphia. And so, a goon named Bono (played by Antoni Corone) from the Italian mafia has a threatening meeting with Peter and warns him that the Italian mafia will come after the cousins unless Peter kills Michael. Peter tells Bono that he won’t kill Michael. The rest of the story is about how much danger these two cousins get themselves into, as Michael continues with his screw-ups and some people inevitably get hurt or killed.
“Brothers by Blood” has frequent flashbacks to Peter’s childhood. It’s revealed that his seemingly happy life went on a downward spiral when he was 8 years old (Nicholas Crovetti portrays Peter as a boy) and witnessed his younger sister (played by Grace Bilik) accidentally get killed when she ran out into the street and was hit by a car. The car’s driver was a cop named Victor Kopec (played by Michael McFadden), who lives nearby. And Peter’s ill-tempered father Charley (played by Ryan Philippe) vows revenge.
A childhood flashback shows that Peter’s life gets even worse when his grieving mother has a nervous breakdown and she’s put in a psychiatric hospital, which is talked about but not shown in the movie. Peter’s father Charley is obsessed with getting revenge on Victor. Michael’s father Phil (played by Felix Scott), who is Charley’s brother, vehemently disagrees with Charley’s plan to murder Victor, because Charley and Phil are already involved with the Irish mafia. If Charley becomes a cop killer, it could cause problems for the brothers, not only with the police but also with the mafia.
Like a lot of derivative mobster flicks, “Brothers by Blood” limits the female characters in very sexist and shallow ways. Grace is the only female character with a significant speaking role in the film, and she’s really just there to be a potential love interest for Peter. Writer/director Guez has such little regard for Peter’s sister (whose death is the catalyst for a lot of the family drama) that he didn’t even give her a name in the story. In the end credits, she’s only labeled “Little Girl.” And Peter’s mother is reduced to being a nameless, background character who’s briefly shown sobbing over the death of her daughter.
Despite solid performances from Schoenaerts and Phillippe, “Brothers by Blood” could be called “Brothers by Boredom,” since this so-called gangster film has a lot of dull talk and not much action. Too much of the movie is about Michael being a swaggering fool and pulling guns on people, while Peter just stands around looking embarrassed and occasionally steps in to stop Michael from making things worse. We get it. These cousins are dysfunctionally co-dependent.
Peter’s childhood flashbacks are more interesting than the storyline with the adult Peter and adult Michael, because the flashbacks give some insight into how and why Michael and Peter ended up being so close. Their family experienced more tragedy besides the death of Peter’s sister. But this backstory isn’t enough to save “Brothers by Blood” from being a hollow and drab movie with a completely predictable ending.
Vertical Entertainment released “Brothers by Blood” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on January 22, 2021.