Small-time Irish crooks Peter and Michael Brooks (played by Matthias Schoenaerts and Joel Kinnaman, respectively) are not siblings but cousins, although there’s no shame in feeling confused amid the somewhat convoluted Philadelphia-set crime drama “Brothers by Blood.” Other characters make the mistake all the time, pulling Peter aside and implying that the brewing trouble between Michael’s gang and the more-established Italian mobsters in town would calm if he would just do something about his brother — something like making the hotheaded union boss disappear. “He’s not my brother,” Peter explains, but his loyalty runs as deep as if he were.
“Brothers by Blood” represents writer-director Jérémie Guez’s oblique, atmospheric take on Pete Dexter’s taut and relatively uncomplicated 1991 novel “Brotherly Love.” Even the casting is unconventional — though Schoenaerts’ and Kinnaman’s gruff, mumbly performances are the best thing about it, a throwback to an earlier generation of Method actors.
Dexter’s book begins with a newspaper clipping that forecasts the characters’ fates, but not necessarily how they meet them: Peter and Michael and a third associate have been found murdered, it says, sparking “a new chapter in Philadelphia’s crime wars.” The rest of the novel serves as prologue, revealing what really went down and how it was all set in motion by a family tragedy some 16 years earlier. This snapshot might constitute a spoiler for the film, except that Guez has decided to go his own way, opening and closing with a different, far more understated outcome — though it’s easy to imagine more whackings after the credits roll, much as the final cut-to-black of “The Sopranos” suggested.
The director, who publishes crime novels in his native France, has opted for a more “arty” treatment of the Dennis Lehane-like source material, filming in long takes and banishing much of the violence audiences expect from the genre to the edges of the frame, if not beyond. Mayhem and murders still happen, but they are nearly always described by other characters, rather than shown, obliging audiences to pay close attention in order to make sense of the puzzle Guez has made of this straightforward story.
That’s a curiously intellectual choice for a movie in which the leading men are instinctive, animalistic brutes, rather than big thinkers. Belgian actor Schoenaerts excels at this type of character, embodying inner turmoil that erupts into rage (see “Bullhead,” “Rust and Bone” and “The Mustang”) — except that here, he’s the mediator. It’s implied that Peter has done his share of dirty work, and his physical presence is menacing enough to intimidate people, but we only once see him snap here, and even then, it looks as if his pulse remains at rest when it happens.
From the very first scene, Peter comes off numb and emotionally disassociated from life. He and Michael and longtime friend Jimmy (Paul Schneider) are hanging out on the roof of an apartment building, joking around. The pals are hardly paying attention as Peter gravitates to the ledge, climbs up and calmly steps into the void. It’s the kind of thing Batman might do, only here, Peter falls four stories … and survives. Not that he cares whether he lives or dies. This isn’t the first time Peter has done it (Guez will flashback to when it first happened late in the film). There are few things scarier than a man with nothing to lose.
“Brothers by Love” is the story of how such a damaged human being reaches his breaking point. Punctuated with flashbacks, the film sketches in the trauma of his childhood — a painful accident, a catatonic mother, a vengeful father (Ryan Phillippe, who, like all the men in the cast, betrays not a glimmer of his beauty). Everyone here is playing it unshaven, hunched and huddled under layers of cold-weather coats. Their lines are barely whispered, and their eyes often say more than their words.
Even so, Schoenaerts draws us into the character’s tortured head space, while Kinnaman chills in his unpredictability. Through a series of half-grunted scenes (half-grunted in a convincing South Philly accent, it should be said), we understand that Peter is loyal by obligation, tied to the shady family business. Even the politicians are corrupt, as observed in a smarmy bureaucratic deal brokered early on. The only innocents here are Jimmy’s sister Grace (Maika Monroe), whose return to the neighborhood hints at the possibility of redemptive romance, and a young fighter at the local boxing gym — two symbols of purity Peter’s determined to protect from his cousin.
Off-screen, a war is mounting between Michael and the Italian mob, but it’s the inevitable showdown between the two cousins that provides most of the film’s tension. That and the uncertainty of how Michael will react in any given situation, as when he’s obliged to put down a racing horse and threatens the veterinarian with his own needle. The prospect of turning that lethal injection on a human is as chilling as Anton Chigurh’s captive bolt pistol, even if Guez is disinclined to revel in the violence.
The combustibility of the family dynamic captivates the filmmaker more, and while most audiences might prefer a more bombastic crime tale, Guez seems to be making his low-key “Godfather” entry here, minus the dramatic crescendos where scores get settled. Stylistically, this brooding neo-noir is closer to James Gray’s debut, “Little Odessa,” with its dark shadows and nuanced interpersonal dynamics. Structurally, the most obvious influence is French scribe Thomas Bidegain, master of a technique whereby he deprives audiences of the scenes they expect, revealing his characters through moments that might seem mundane in other hands — like Guez’s.
“Brothers by Blood” tries something similar, with less gripping results. It’s only Guez’s second film, although he’s written others (including the similarly genre-subverting zombie movie “The Night Eats the World”), and there’s enough promise here — especially on the performance front — to look forward to future projects. Trouble is, he’s drawn to well-trod material, convinced he can find fresh psychology amid the clichés, whereas casual viewers, unwilling to sit through 90 minutes that feel like three hours, won’t find much interest in such a somber, slow-burn approach when the executions, explosions and tension are insinuated, rather than shown.