Blood Father first published by RealCrime Magazine
Director Jean-François Richet has past form with true crime, as he proved in his epic two-part film Mesrine (2008) on the exploits of real-life gangster Jacques Mesrine. Yet Richet is also at home to genre, having directed the 2005 reimagining of John Carpenter’s 1976 classic Assault on Precinct 13. Now, with Blood Father, he combines these two sensibilities in a film that goes for true grit, yet is full of genre gestures.
There are three kinds of realism here. First, there are the socioeconomics of making hero John (Mel Gibson) a former alcoholic and an ex con, cut off from his wife and daughter, and working as a tattoo artist out of his trailer home in the desert. This is not an idealised, aspirational model of the American Dream, but a vision of a nation in decline, and maybe – in recovery.
Second, there is the (somewhat superficial) attempt to expose the power structures both of a Mexican cartel and an all-American veterans’ biker militia, with tattooed drug thugs, Confederate (and Nazi) flags, and even words like ‘sicario’ (familiar from Denis Villeneuve’s much better film of the same name form 2015) all part of the film’s furniture.
Third, and most importantly, there is the very real and well-publicised background of star Gibson. When we first meet John at an AA meeting, cantankerously confessing his past of drinking and criminality, the actor (who has had his own history of alcohol and brushes with the law) appears also to be offering his own mea culpa – much as he did in The Beaver (2011).
John’s 17-year-old daughter Lydia (Erin Moriarty) is in trouble over her older gang-banging boyfriend Jonah (Diego Luna) – a bad apple whose very name, so similar to John’s, marks him as an alternative father figure to this little girl lost. Lydia turns desperately back to John, sending him on a return trip to his criminal past, for revenge and perhaps redemption.
The sinner saved by saving a child is a cliché familiar from countless films – including the last two Mad Max outings to star Gibson himself – which makes Blood Father feel as old and worn as John at the film’s beginning, before he gets a gun (and a landmine!), mounts his ‘hog’, and starts kicking ass – in yet more clichés. It is not entirely clear whether John helps Lydia simply to secure her future, or because he relishes returning to his outlaw ways – and from this mixed message emerges a dialectic about America’s confused attitudes towards patriarchy and violence. After all, the film begins with a supermarket cashier refusing to sell Lydia cigarettes without ID, but happy to let her buy bullets…
© Anton Bitel