In Blood Father, Mel Gibson is John Link, the estranged ex-con father of teen runaway Lydia. When Lydia contacts him, desperately seeking shelter from her drug cartel boyfriend’s pissed-off co-workers, Link sets out to violate every single parole restriction imaginable. All of them.
When I sat down with this film, a glass of cheap whiskey by my side, I had three preconceived questions:
- When was the last time I actually watched a Mel Gibson movie? It sort of felt like Fury Road should count somehow, but I knew it didn’t.
- Was Liam Neeson unavailable, seeing as this is the basic plot he has been exclusively paraphrasing for the last few years? (Secondary question for follow-up: Did Gibson need to kiss Neeson’s ring to gain entrance into the Father-Exacting-Bloody-Vengeance-On-Bad-Guys film genre?)
- Are they really planning to stick with that title?
Honestly, my expectations weren’t set very high on this one. It looked like a clunky action flick with a stupid title and a star whose last performance to cross this writer’s purview was that Shyamalan alien invasion/ode to water glasses movie Signs. I know, he’s been in some other stuff over the last decade and a half, but I haven’t exactly been seeking him out. The last project he did that really set me on fire was the excellent Payback all the way back in ’99.
Sure, he’s spent a great deal of that time behind the camera, but I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t yet seen Passion of the Christ and for some inexplicable reason, my mind free-associates Apocalypto with Cameron’s Avatar and I simply cannot generate any trace of interest in ever sacrificing the time to watch either one. It’s unfair, I know. Although, Mel, if you’re reading this and it will spare your feelings over my lack of enthusiasm for your last couple of films, I have to say that the trailer for the upcoming Hacksaw Ridge included on this disc looks pretty good.
As I pushed play, I didn’t expect much. The description on the packaging and press material didn’t do much to encourage me. But then again, I have a long-standing man-crush on William Macy, so at least I knew I’d have one thing to look forward to. And Michael Parks is in it? Hey, then. If you think you don’t know who Michael Parks is, you’re mistaken. You’ve seen him. Hell, you’ve probably even thought to yourself: “Hey, I remember that guy! That guy’s great! What’s his name, anyway?” Then you looked him up on IMDB and realized he’s been in virtually every television show and movie since you were born.
I started taking notes, and even wrote some snark about the opening sequence and the weird dating practices of Millennials because, you know, any chance to offend a Millennial is a chance worth taking. I had some thoughts about the random wasp’s nest outside the house just before the bullets started flying. And it was going to be funny, dammit. But then an even funnier thing happened. The cut-rate Tarantino brutality of the opening scene cut to a hirsute Mel Gibson delivering a monologue to his local AA chapter and I stopped taking notes. Maybe it was the aforementioned cheap whiskey, but I was pulled in for the ride.
Gibson should only ever play broken-down hard-luck dirtbags from now on. Maybe it’s why I count Payback among my personal all-time top ten favorite movies. For my money, he’s at his most convincing when he’s playing exactly the sort of self-restrained, self-recriminating simmering piss-pot of violent tendencies we find in that film. And this one, for that matter.
What makes this movie work is its willingness to breathe life into its characters. It feels like every resident of this dirty, smelly world has a story to tell. Except fuck you, that’s just not the story we’re telling. Even the main character’s story remains entirely germane to the one being told here. His past remains in the past, sparing us the dreaded “origin story.” Instead, deft asides and off-handed comments fill the audience with just enough information to keep the story moving along. There’s a verisimilitude to it, frankly. There’s just no need to waste time on the hows and whys of Link’s incarceration or Lydia’s teen runaway years. The point is that their decisions have brought them to the respective points where we find them, and it’s time to move on from there.
As good as Gibson’s performance is in this movie, it would have paled without the support of his co-star Erin Moriarty. The strength of her performance and her utter confidence in the role of Link’s seventeen year old daughter Lydia binds this movie together. Their father-daughter chemistry is the key to this film’s success, and it does not disappoint. Despite their unusually harrowing situation, Lydia settles into life with dad with a natural grace that should seem unlikely. Except the two actors make it work.
Director Jean-Francois Richet (whose directing credits include Assault on Precinct 13 and the two-part Mesrine series of films) keeps the pacing fast and loose without ever being shy about slowing things down and investing in a little characterization. There are a couple of action set pieces, the most complicated of which is undoubtedly the highway motorcycle shootout, but none of them stand out in this viewer’s mind as much as the simple moments between the characters. Preacher’s matter-of-fact support of neo-Nazi ideals, the horny kid working the counter of the fleabag hotel, and William Macy’s explanation of “fit” versus “fancy” are just a few of the normalizing passages that bind this film together and keep it balanced.
Andrea Berloff, the screenwriter for Straight Outta Compton teamed with Peter Craig to adapt Craig’s novel of the same name. So, basically, he went with that title the first time and then stuck with it for a second go-round. With all due apologies, I’m just really hung up on that title. Blood Father. I mean, I can’t find any way to say it out loud that doesn’t sound dopey. I suppose it could work as a name for a cocktail. Maybe an Old-Fashioned, except with spicy tomato juice instead of bitters and sugar? Actually, ew. That sounds gross. I dunno. If I hadn’t run out of cheap whiskey while watching this movie, I might consider experimenting. Berloff and Craig’s script doesn’t exactly break any new ground for the action genre. Their ability to breathe new life into action movie tropes like the Disenfranchised Teen Runaway, the Defiantly Reformed Ex-Con, and the Cartel-Connected Dickhead is respectable.
But for this writer the most refreshing aspect of the script was its determined lack of messaging. Everything that happens just… happens. No one passes judgement on anyone else. There is no trace of a political message being touted. The penal system would be an easy target, but no shots are taken. Drug abuse and addiction are presented as unfortunate facts without recrimination. Even the sad old bastard making bank selling Nazi memorabilia online is accepted as a part of this film’s landscape. Betrayals and double-crosses don’t necessarily elicit a need for vengeance in our protagonists. The only important thing to Link is protecting his daughter. Which he does again and again. It’s elegant in its simplicity, really. By bookending the film with AA meetings, a tone of quiet acceptance without judgement is set and adhered to until the end credits roll.
The disc’s lone added feature is hardly worth mentioning. Lost Souls: On the Road with Blood Father is every bit as prosaic as the title would imply (again with the titles! I know they don’t come easy, but come on, gang!). It’s a half hour of everyone gushing over working with everyone else. Erin loved working with Mel. Mel loved working with Jean-Francois. Peter loved working with Mel and Jean-Francois. They show some on-set activity, including the filming of the motorcycle chase scene. I suppose it’s something to watch if you were expecting a two-hour movie and need to fill that half-hour void.
The short review: Blood Father is worth checking out. If video stores still existed, I would advise you to use that coupon you’ve been saving and take it out as the “-get one free” portion (and I would say to use the “rent one-“ portion to pick up a copy of Payback. I swear, Payback is killer.). Blood Father is an hour and a half study of very human character flaws, Mel Gibson’s throaty growl, and explosive action.