Crime and families (and crime families) have been a part of international cinema for years with movies as diverse as The Godfather, Animal Kingdom and The Raid all touching on the subject to varying degrees. Two new far lower profile films head into theaters this week, and while neither reach the heights of the ones just mentioned they’re both worthy additions to the sub-genre as they explore the deadly ramifications of mixing blood relatives with bloodletting. You can pick your friends, but it turns out you can’t pick your crime family.
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Three adult men, brothers, have moved on from the grief over their father’s murder to focus on what makes them happy. Rocco (Peppino Mazzotta) is a businessman, at least on the outside, who runs a drug and crime empire from his snazzy Milan apartment while Luigi (Marco Leonardi) participates with a far more hands-on approach. The eldest of the three, Luciano (Fabrizio Ferracane), wants nothing more than to keep their illicit trade at arm’s length and instead works the land as a sheep farmer in a small town far removed from the big city.
Luciano’s son, Leo (Giuseppe Fumo), leans closer to his uncles’ career choices though, and after an incident with a local he runs off to the city to enjoy a tutelage in their criminal enterprise. His lessons begin with a return to rural Calabria in the Southern half of the country where Rocco and Luigi have some dealings, but the calm of the countryside doesn’t last for long.
Black Souls is far more of a slow-burn than an action-packed gangster picture, but when the violence does come it hits with a frantic precision. It’s a controlled build towards moments of bloodletting and a murderous climax that works in some ways to subvert our expectations of the genre.
Director/co-writer Francesco Munzi’s interest here is as much the perception of these characters as it is the characters themselves. The appeal of a lifestyle built on intimidation, drug dealing and murder is visible in the wealth and power that both Rocco and Luigi display, and the impressionable Leo is drawn to it like an Italian bee to Neapolitan-flavored honey. His desire for a life of adrenaline-fueled luxury outweighs the earthy endeavors of his father, and the conflicts born from this lead to friction among the family members and the main source of the film’s drama.
That’s not to say there aren’t other subplots at play, most notably a power struggle with another crime family, but they exist somewhat on the periphery as the brothers and to a lesser degree their own families – wives, children – engage each other in both conversation and argument. The squabbles could just as easily be happening in a more traditional drama with characters who don’t live under the threat of assassination or have closets full of black jackets, but here they work to inject that normalcy into the criminal construct. It’s not always successful though as it doesn’t quite get fleshed out beyond the Luciano-versus-everyone else dynamic.
That changes in the third act as things come to a head, but it’s almost a case of too little too late. Almost because the varying personalities between the three brothers creates an interesting contrast of characters. Sure we’ve seen them before in various incarnations, but the film’s final minutes take them someplace wholly new for the genre.
Black Souls is a good film – it’s well-acted, sharply photographed and features a smart third-act shift – but its pacing and dramatic weight aren’t enough to make it great.
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Mind Blowing Films
Buddy was just a slow-witted boy when he witnessed his lawman father’s murder by an unknown assailant, but his sense of justice was quickly satisfied when a local business owner named Julius Hench (Vincent D’Onofrio) pointed him in the direction of revenge. Fifteen years later the mentally-challenged young man (Chris Marquette) is working for Hench full-time as a trained attack dog (of sorts) with the outward appearance of a puppy. Buddy’s younger brother Jake (Anton Yelchin) moved to New York City years ago, but he’s returning to town in preparation for his upcoming wedding. He wants his big brother to attend, but Jake comes to suspect that the man holding the end of Buddy’s leash has no intention of letting that happen.
Jake’s suspicions are quickly proven correct when he narrowly avoids being murdered by one of Hench’s men and kills the would-be assassin instead. Fearing for his life but unwilling to leave town without Buddy, Jake ingratiates himself into Hench’s team in an attempt to dismantle his power from within.
Director/co-writer Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s American debut, Broken Horses – a loose retelling of his own 1989 thriller Parinda – is set in the sparsely populated Southwest along the border with Mexico, and it takes great advantage of the landscape’s inherent beauty. There’s a wide expanse of land around Jake, but it’s easy to see how that makes him and his troubles even more isolated from outside help. Of course, Hench having local law enforcement in his pocket helps too.
The core of the story is the love between two brothers, one who ran away and one who stayed behind, but while Buddy would do anything for his little brother it’s equally clear that Hench’s control over him is strong. The inevitable conflict being set up here is painted in big block letters across the sky, but rather than have the simplicity of one “good” brother and one “bad” the film does a fine job making Buddy an empathetic player in Hench’s organization. We know what’s coming, but we’re made to care some about the journey to get there.
The trip isn’t without pot holes though thanks to some odd character and script choices. First and foremost among them has to be the character of Ignacio (Sean Patrick Flanery), a family friend who we glimpse briefly when the boys are children but don’t meet again until he comes rolling out of the shadows, legless and gibbering nonsensically. He ultimately delivers some vaguely important exposition, but the film’s serious and somber tone is interrupted by his appearance and the mechanized noise of his electric wheelchair as he does loops around his shack. It’s a bit too goofy and matches nothing else in the film – well, aside from some of D’Onofrio’s antics and expressions. Between his meltdown in a church and his playful exasperation upon learning that a vegetarian has managed to kill one of his men we’re given a taste of the actor’s patented eccentricity in an otherwise straight-forward role.
The two leads do good if unexceptional work. Yelchin feels a bit too passive at times, acting like an observer when his character is actually meant to be a participant, but he delivers when it comes to the intensity of his brotherly bond. Marquette meanwhile has the more challenging role and manages to keep his performance more natural than gimmicky. It involves a lot of saliva though, so watch out for that.
Chopra’s slow-burn thriller survives more on its characters, performers and style than its narrative – not because it’s bad, but because it’s so familiar – but the end result is a satisfyingly combustible film.