From the opening shot of the running rivulets of sea water on a sandbar to the tide flowing out in the closing shots that bring the story full circle, the director Nick Murphy (The Awakening) works to keep this potentially banal police procedural suspenseful and tight. With incisive acting by British actors Paul Bettany (Joe), Stephan Graham (Chrissy), Mark Strong (Robert), and Brian Cox (Dad), and a screenplay by Bill Gallagher (Clocking Off, The Prisoner), Blood skews our assumptions and jars our expectations. The question is whether all the scenes hold together or a few need to be trimmed to make the film even more taut. Nevertheless, the reversals of character and the plot twists are vital, even if the family scenes drag a bit.
Bettany and Graham are Joe and Chrissie Fairburn, police detectives who carry on the traditions learned from their retired police chief Dad, Lenny Fairburn (Brian Cox). Their father’s worsening dementia still allows him to remember where he worked and how to counsel his sons, particularly the elder Joe, when at a gathering, he loudly chides him not to “F–k up” on their newest murder case.
We discover that Lenny is referring to Joe’s mucking up evidence in the prosecution of a rapist which allowed the criminal to go free to murder the young black girl who testified against him. Joe finds it impossible to sort out the guilt and inner recrimination from his mistake, especially in the face of his father’s condemnatory if spacey remarks and the brutal murder of another teen whom he, his brother, and colleague Robert Seymour (Strong) are investigating.
The film upends the usual cop plot, increasing the suspense ride. We see the investigators becoming embroiled in their own inner demons as they solve the case of the murdered teen. When Robert turns up additional evidence, their decisions and actions create a completely unexpected turn of events which prompts an additional investigation. Throughout, the audience’s emotions in favor of the the brothers Fairburn warp. The conflicts between the brothers grow shadier and the deepening tragedy of self-deception engulfs the entire police family. Only the calm, steadfast colleague Robert, quietly portrayed by the usually villainous Mark Strong, manages to keep the steady pace of the investigations moving forward. These are exceptional acting turns by Bettany, Graham, Strong and Cox, and for Strong and Bettany, marvelously counterintuitive.
With the second investigation, the director and writer have ratcheted up the film’s ironic reversals and made them intriguing. They lead us away from supporting some characters and rooting for others. There is the haunting, weird hallucination of a murder victim counseling an investigator, and the mounting tension of whether the second investigation can be solved. The final coup de grace is delivered by the senile Cox who appears to be more aware than his dementia would indicate.
Murphy ties the idea of “blood being thicker than water” into the images. The title and the symbol of blood, as incrimination, as a generational curse, as a means of expiation and redemption is woven throughout. Murphy and Gallagher also present a prominent theme through Strong’s calmly determined detective Robert as he underscores aloud to the brothers that it is hard to live with the guilt of committing murder. He points to the hackneyed irony that “confession is good for the soul.” Finally, the last tie of blood between the brothers is a blood secret that both most uphold.
The film is haunting in parts, with thrilling bits and clever strikes in plot, character and casting. The back-to-back investigations surprise, and our audience empathy sheers off and redirects when Gallagher gradually turns our focus toward Robert.
The ensemble acting melds the striking character differences. It is spot-on, with Graham’s depth of characterization and an interesting portrayal by Cox with the right balance of addle-headed yet wary circumspection. Cox keeps you guessing how much Dad really remembers because his comments are pointed one moment, disjointed the next; he infuses his dialogue with great choices.