When Philadelphia Daily News columnist Pete Dexter's released his novel Brotherly Love in 1991, he was already a National Book Award winner for Paris Trout, and rising the ranks of gritty American authors. His intergenerational tale of corruption, grift, and violence in Philly built on the union hall blues of his debut, God's Pocket, with an insider's view of violence. (Dexter himself famously took up fiction after getting into a brawl: When he got his ass kicked by a bar full of guys mad about a column he wrote, he came back with his friend, boxer Randall "Tex" Cobb, and they both ended up in the hospital.) The book was critically lauded, fitting neatly alongside crime classics of the era like Richard Price's Clockers and James Ellroy's L.A. Quartet. In no small part that was because, like those books, it was of its time and place. There was something specific about it. So what happens when you update it 25 years, with inserted references to the 2016 election to give it a sense of timeliness?
Sadly, you get Brothers by Blood, a hoary rerun of the classic story of a gangster family divided. The collision is inevitable. Over here, Michael (Kinnaman) under thick, winter-defying layers but with his head exposed like a tough guy, making money off extorted roofing contracts but with aspirations to be more, and worse. By his side is cousin Peter (Schoenaerts), a bulldozer under his worn-out longshoreman's cap. He's Michael's consigliere, but don't use that term around him. That's an Italian term, and good Irish-American businessmen like Michael and Peter would hand down a beating for far less. But for all their connections, and the ease with which they can throw around money, there's a self-destructiveness that wears both men down. Peter, at least, can see that. "There's no sense hurting yourself on purpose," his uncle (Scott) tells his younger self in one of the multitude of flashbacks showing how he took Peter in after the boy's father (Phillippe, in a blink-and-you-will-miss-it cameo) committed one transgression too many. Such moments are intended to weave the twisting threads of tragedy that draw the family bloodily together: unfortunately, they mostly just leave the audience hanging.
Dexter's novel was in no small part about how the Irish gangs in Philly were the underdogs to the Mafia, picking up scraps and bristling at their lesser position. That was the cultural specificity, and unfortunately Brothers by Blood just tries to cram what he knew then into a slightly more modern story. The end result feels adrift, chopped down to fit a 90 minute runtime from when it ran under its previous title, The Sound of Philadelphia. There's a protracted subplot about a racehorse that can't help but evoke The Godfather, yet its resolution, designed as a moment showing that Michael will never be what he yearns to be, lands as neither poignant nor bleakly comedic. It's just there, much as are the two deaths – one in Peter's childhood, one the trigger for the inevitable family bloodbath – that show how the family is doomed to repeat every stupid, bloody mistake. It's the inevitable closing of a loop, whether Michael turns on Peter or Peter turns on Michael. Too much feels predictable, and done with a sense of tepid inevitability, like the cold romance between Peter and Grace (Monroe), the sister of someone foolish enough to become Michael's business partner. What should be lyrical introspection becomes sadly monotonous (a sensation not helped by writer/director Guez's decision to have everyone deliver their lines in a low mumble). It's hard to say that any other edit would be better, because Brothers by Blood is one single, grey mass to the bone, an unfortunate use of a sterling cast and a book that deserves a more textured retelling.
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