Blood Father: Fight for Redemption, by Tyler Smith
Jean-Francois Richet’s Blood Father begins with our protagonist, John Link, sitting at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, stating his general philosophy. It is filled with cynicism and regret; the admission that he has hurt people and would like to repair those relationships, but the understanding that they might be irreparable. Link is haggard and weather-beaten, with a faraway look in his eye, as though he is perpetually looking for something that will never arrive. That Link is played by Hollywood outcast Mel Gibson isn’t merely an interesting element of the movie. It is the movie. That, along with some nice pulpy, crackerjack writing and some solid supporting performances, is what gives Blood Father its weight. And, like Link’s emotional burden, it weighs a ton.
The story is relatively simple. Lydia (Erin Moriarty), a 17-year-old runaway, gets tied up with a Mexican gangster (Diego Luna) and soon finds herself on the run from the mob. She is completely alone, so she turns to the only person she can: her ex-con father, Link. It has been four years since she ran away, and even longer since she had any real connection with him, but she has no other option. She finds him living in a rundown trailer park in the middle of nowhere. He is happy to take her in, but is soon confronted by the gang. So the two go on the offensive, confronting Link’s criminal past in the process.
In many ways, Blood Father is an effective thriller, hitting all the right beats in order to excite and frighten the audience. Jean-Francois Richet’s directorial choices – aside from the odd edit here and there – show a nice instinct for action, as previously shown in the Assault on Precinct 13 remake. The film looks great, with the California desert seeming particularly desolate and unforgiving. But, in the end, this is a character piece, as Link comes out of exile for one last chance at redemption, even if it is of the more violent kind.
As tends to be the case with films like this, there are a number of supporting parts that allow the slate of experienced character actors to really sink their teeth into. William H. Macy plays Link’s AA sponsor, and a man whose own life has been more than a little rocky. The always-dependable Miguel Sandoval portrays an incarcerated crime boss with a beautiful combination of wisdom and menace. And Michael Parks – the go-to guy for dangerous charisma – delivers a chilling performance as the former head of Link’s biker gang.
Erin Moriarty isn’t immediately memorable, but as the character begins to come into her own, so does Moriarty. She plays Lydia as a woman who’s been living a certain way for so long – drugs, sex, crime – that she has forgotten what a normal relationship looks like. It’s interesting to see her character become more human over the course of the film, and Moriarty plays this arc with the proper amount of panic, horror, and tenderness.
But, in the end, the film belongs to Mel Gibson, and not merely due to his sturdy, lived-in performance. Just as Gran Torino depended on Clint Eastwood’s tough guy public persona, Blood Father assumes our knowledge of Gibson’s very public transgressions. It assumes we remember that Gibson, who was once one of the biggest movie stars in the world, fell from grace so hard that he became a cautionary tale in Hollywood. Public opinion turned against him so swiftly – and perhaps so rightfully – that, like Link, he found himself exiled to the wilderness, employed only occasionally by the grace of old friends like Jodie Foster (The Beaver), and the morbid playfulness of directors like Patrick Hughes (The Expendables 3) and Robert Rodriguez (Machete Kills).
Richet understands that we have an association with Mel Gibson, and it’s no longer a positive one. And, as he lingers on Gibson’s craggy, world-weary face, he lets us fill in the blanks, both about the character and the actor. In both cases, we see the shell of a man who was once capable and dependable, but was brought down by his own demons. We get the sense that, just underneath the surface, there is a deep anger simmering that could boil over at any moment. But keeping the rage at bay is an overwhelming sadness; the awareness that he only has himself to blame. While Gibson is more than able to play the more businesslike parts of the character, he seems willing to lay himself bare as the camera explores the harrowed look that keeps creeping across Link’s face. It is a great performance, not because the actor is layering things on, but because he’s stripping them off and finds the perfect melding of character and performer.
Blood Father is not a perfect movie, but it is an engaging one. The story is familiar, yet still feels somewhat fresh. The actors are completely committed to their characters, no matter how small they might be. The action – sometimes stylized, sometimes straightforward – is exciting, yet never lets us feel overly comfortable with what we’re seeing. But, most importantly, it is a character study, though not merely of its main character. It is a film about redemption made all the more poignant and relevant because it draws on our own sense of betrayal and anger towards the actor and challenges us to either forgive or dismiss. By including the audience as an aggrieved party, director Jean-Francois Richet elevates Blood Father into a fascinating meditation, not only on seeking forgiveness, but giving it.