Saturday, April 4, 2015

Brother's Keeper: Netflix's Bloodline

Ben Mendelsohn and Kyle Chandler in Bloodline.

A number of years back, I had people consistently recommending that I watch Damages (2007-2012), a television procedural thriller about a ruthless high-powered attorney (Glenn Close) and her young protégée (Rose Byrne) that she was both tutoring and perhaps trying to murder. After all that praise, I couldn't wait to catch up with it. When I finally did, though, I couldn't believe how ridiculous it was. With barely a shred of dramatic believability, Damages kept the audience in total suspense by withholding plot points, using flashforwards and flashbacks while offering up one outrageous red herring after another. Damages wasn't neo-noir. It was inadvertent high camp. Watching Glenn Close grandstanding in the manner of Joan Crawford in her gargoyle roles, and glaring into the camera in an endless series of frozen close-ups, became a hilarious parody of malevolent evil. Created by brothers Glenn and Todd A. Kessler, Damages streamlined a dramatic formula that had already been successful for a number of other hit shows that liked to define themselves as 'dark' by employing what a friend of mine cleverly calls "cozy cynicism."

What I think appealed to many in Damages was its view that our institutions and the people within them are already so corrupt that they were simply mirroring what we already held as true. The show comfortably confirmed the dubious notion that corruption was so intrinsic that there weren't really any ethics to violate. (At the beginning of Dexter, a detective who is also a serial killer murders only those who are perceived as worse than him.) In one outlandish plot twist after another, everything in Damages boiled down to: Don't Trust Anyone. Yet what made film noir such an appealing genre in the Forties and Fifties was the notion that basically decent, trusting people could, through fate or unacknowledged desire, head down those roads to perdition. Our terror came from seeing those ordinary folks breaking faith with the community and institutions they were part of. But in these contemporary shows, all roads lead to perdition since there are no values existing to violate. The current big hit, House of Cards, even has the lead character (Kevin Spacey) address the camera as if he were winking at the audience and assuring us that his questionable behaviour is in perfect keeping with a political system that we've already grown to distrust and reject. There's nothing at stake in this kind of drama because there are no stakes to lose in the first place.

Thankfully, in the Kessler brothers' latest series thriller, Bloodline (on Netflix), they hone much closer to material more believable than Damages. With the help of a tip-top cast, Bloodline faithfully resurrects noir themes in a story that delves into the unconscious dramas that lurk within the family and can tear them apart. Set in the Florida Keys, the Rayburn clan run a tourist resort that's helmed by local patriarch Robert Rayburn (Sam Shepard) and his wife Sally (Sissy Spacek), who are about to celebrate a county dedication. As they call together their children to help join in the event, it becomes clear that not all is well with the siblings. The arrival of the oldest brother Danny (Ben Mendelsohn), seen travelling on a bus from Miami popping pills and having hallucinations, is creating unrest since he is the black sheep of the family. His brother John (Kyle Chandler), a local detective, has always been the peacemaker between Danny and their father (who had rejected Danny long before), but his sense of duty to Danny hides a rage he has yet to fully tap. His sister Meg (Linda Cardellini) is a local attorney who feels alienated from her father, yet she still does his legal work as if that will eventually earn his favour. She is also involved with John's rather stoic partner, Marco (Enrique Murciano), but she secretly hooks up for passionate sex with a client, Alec (Steven Pasquale), which leaves her feeling worse. Kevin (Norbert Leo Butz) is the younger brother, a hothead that works at a local harbour, whose turbulent behaviour is beginning to cost him his marriage to Belle (Katie Finneran). Bloodline examines how the uncorking of the circumstances surrounding the death of their sister, Sarah, years earlier, unravels a bushel full of resentments and rivalries that ultimately have tragic consequences.

Ben Mendelsohn as Danny.

Although the Kessler brothers remain masters of the tease with their relentless flashforwards and flashbacks, the technique has a more sound purpose in Bloodline. Here jumping back and forth in time provides a sharp contrast in the viewer of getting to see not only the climax of a crime of passion, but how good intentions turned so irrevocably tragic. The theme of the series in a sense resembles Bruce Springsteen's "Highway Patrolman," a song about brothers where one is an officer of the law and the other is consistently in trouble with the law. This mournful, haunting ballad first appeared on Springsteen's starkly conceived Nebraska (1982) album and it examined how the officer consistently overlooked his older sibling's indiscretions because a man who turns his back on his family "ain't no good." (The song also influenced Sean Penn's The Indian Runner, his 1991 debut film as a director.) That's certainly the problem that John Rayburn has with Danny. Becoming a family outcast, however, has turned Danny into a trickster who manipulates his siblings so that he can ultimately bring the family down for rejecting him. He does this by delving into a dangerous business partnership with a scary local gangster, Wayne Lowry (Glenn Morshower), who smuggles both drugs and illegal immigrants into the Keys. John's efforts to continually keep the peace and protect his brother, though, do nothing but stir up the hornet's nest at home. Danny is able to keep his family off-guard because he knows their weaknesses and he carefully exploits each one of them – including his own mother who still harbours guilt over Danny's predicament and wishes to make amends by having him manage the family business.

Unlike Damages, which was filled with a cavalcade of howlers, Bloodline works harder to resist the pull towards melodrama. More character driven than Damages, the story in Bloodline doesn't impose itself on the actors the way Damages did. Kyle Chandler, who showed how effectively he can play a man of authority on Friday Night Lights, is also ideally cast as John. In Friday Night Lights, Chandler's solid presence as an actor provided an emotional grounding for the teenage football players he coached and the family he was trying to raise. On Bloodline, his presence provides more the illusion of solidity. His assuredness here hides the self-loathing that leaves him feeling that he actually betrayed his brother when they were kids. (When Sarah died, their father took it out on Danny with a vicious beating that landed him in the hospital. The children all lied about what happened to protect their father.) Since Danny knows John's vulnerability, he manipulates him to become the kind of man he resists becoming. The Australian actor, Ben Mendelsohn, as Danny, is creamy smooth playing the victim who turns conniver. With a sly subtlety that seems attuned to the steady humidity of the Florida Keys, Danny insinuates himself back into the family with an allure that unmasks the family dynamic while also continuing to act it out. Norbert Leo Butz, who plays the younger sibling Kevin as the perpetual adolescent, is the easiest character for Danny to tweak because Kevin may do a lot of barking, but he has no bite. Kevin secretly knows that he's getting older but never feels as if he's growing up.

Sissy Spacek, Linda Cardellini and Norbert Leo Butz.

Even though Bloodline centers on the brothers, the women are all vividly present. Linda Cardellini's Meg is a woman who never gained her father's full acceptance or bonded closely with her mother, so her sexual affairs are as much random as they are reckless. She is so unanchored that her pursuit of law comes across as providing a safe refuge from the troubling idea that she is nowhere. Jacinda Barrett as Diana, John's wife, is an oasis of sanity who sees through Danny's machinations but can't reach John because the fish hooks in him run too deep for her to pull them out. Chloë Sevigny, as Danny's lover Chelsea, may see all too clearly the type of man she's in love with, but in a life filled with disastrous romantic affairs, Danny speaks in the only language she understands. But rather than portray Chelsea as the type of woman who sets out to redeem her man, Sevigny smartly plays her as one who is given to fatalistically accepting her lovers on the only terms they know. While Sam Shepard and Sissy Spacek don't have huge roles, they fill them with an authority that feels authentically rooted in the material.

Bloodline isn't perfect. It tries to pile on a few too many plot climaxes towards the end and it's a little hard to fully believe that someone as careful as Wayne Lowry would allow himself to trust a man whose brother is a detective. There's also a suggestion of incestuous material that is never made clear, but perhaps that will be uncovered in the upcoming season. (Bloodline has just been renewed by Netflix.) While hardly a tropical version of Long Day's Journey into Night, Bloodline is about the same family neurosis. It's about the wilful blindness that sometimes comes out of being a brother's keeper, and where nothing is kept safe  or protected – only secrets.

– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.  

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