In Blood Father, Mel Gibson plays John Link, an ex-con/ex-bikie/alcoholic-in-AA/trailer-park-tattoist who has to defend his runaway junkie daughter Lydia (Erin Moriarty) from the Mexican drug gang she’s gotten herself mixed up with.
Mel Gibson with co-star Erin Moriarty.
We first meet Link at an AA meeting. He’s had a violent and substance-abusing past. All his old friends and old haunts are parole violations, and all he has is a battered trailer in a desert trailer park that doubles as his tattoo parlour. He’s got one good friend in his sponsor, Kirby (William H. Macy), a straight-talking “trailer park poet” who’s clearly had a rough time himself and who’s dedicated to the Program – as in Alcoholics Anonymous – and doing the right thing.
Link retains a bitter edge and a smouldering, barely concealed violence beneath his grizzled beard and beefy tattooed exterior. His interests are survival and finding his missing daughter. She ran away from her mother’s home some years ago, years after her parents split.
Since then Lydia has been living her own life, which, somewhere along the way, led to her getting involved with the “romantic” Jonah (Diego Luna), a key figure in a Mexican drug gang. We meet Lydia as she’s buying boxes of ammunition from a megastore – but she can’t buy cigarettes as she’s underage – ammunition that Jonah and his buddies then use in a crime.
Jonah sets people up in “stash houses”, where the gang hides drugs and money and other things, and he believes the tenants are stealing from him. He tries to get the coked-up Lydia to shoot a woman, but she’s disoriented and accidentally shoots Jonah instead.
And this is why Lydia calls up her father, in need of his help. The gang eventually tracks them down, which leads to John and Lydia running for their lives as they try to work out what’s going on, and what they can do about it.
Blood Father is an old-school noirish crime drama, the sort where there are real bad guys, and bad guys who are trying make amends for their past sins, the sort of movie which would’ve starred Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson in the past.
Director Jean-Francois Richet has crafted an impeccably tense and compelling story, with writers Peter Craig and Andrea Berloff adapting Craig’s novel of the same name, which does what good genre films have always done – tell a good tale that says something meaningful about the human condition, without that something overwhelming the story.
While there are thematic similarities with 2008’s Taken, directed by Pierre Morel and written by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, Blood Father has a different tone and focus. In Taken Liam Neeson played an ex-CIA agent, Bryan Mills, who had to rescue his daughter after she was kidnapped by Albanian gangsters in Europe. The daughter in that film is an innocent victim, and Bryan’s relationships and personal life may have disintegrated due to his commitment to his work, but he remains a highly competent man.
In Blood Father the daughter is a victim, but she is a guilty one, one who has brought her fate upon herself; much as her father – whose competence is limited to brutishness and loyalty – has done. This gives the film a more elevated tone, despite its rougher and lowlier setting. It’s as if a Greek tragedy is being played out in truckstops and dingy bars instead of palaces and temples.
The title itself evokes the Greek theatre, with its blood-drenched plots and the centrality of fatherhood and patrimony, as well as something Biblical, of punishments visited on children for the sins of their fathers, of debts paid in blood, and where atonement is a necessary part of life.
And Gibson himself gives it an air of atonement, as if the film is an attempt to pay for his own, very public, sins. His performance is mesmerising, his craggy face evocative of a life of past mistakes and a desire to make amends.
Much like the Ancient theatre, the modern cinema is itself a collective ritual, one that plays out the drama of the passions, and that offers its audience a glimpse of themselves from the outside. In it, as the great thinker Rene Girard suggested, a scapegoat is presented and sacrificed to bring about an end to violence. But this end is only temporary, for the causes of the violence remain unresolved. The process of redemption is therefore ongoing, a daily practice of seeking to “live in the light”, as one of Link’s friends says.
And with this living comes gratitude, gratitude for the little things, and the big things, gratitude for life itself. It is fitting, then, and proper, that Blood Father ends with the words “Thank you”.
Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia (FCCA).