BLOODLINE Season One Review: Ancestral Beasts of Burden

Jacob Knight reviews the first season of Netflix's potboiler family drama. 

A ukulele tune is carried on the wind, its notes drifting with the breeze. Swirling about the song are memories; ghosts of those who left the shores of this idyllic Florida beach long ago, the Atlantic lapping up the sand behind them. An old Inn sits just beyond the coastline, nestled amongst perfectly manicured tall grass and shading palms, its rooms shared by many guests and owned by a sole hospitality dynasty. The Rayburns are the Lears around this mildly unsophisticated neck of the woods, harboring bloody secrets that threaten to tear their clan asunder. Riding in on a Greyhound is Danny (Ben Mendelsohn), the eldest and keeper of the key to his family’s personal Pandora’s box. And this time, he thinks he’s going to stick around for a bit.

Bloodline, the latest in Netflix’s increasingly long line of original programming, is a peculiar animal. At once a sunburnt, melancholic take on the frayed ties that bind, and a steamy, pulp noir not far removed from Elmore Leonard or Charles Willeford (without showcasing the overt eccentricities of either author), the show strives to provide mellow thematic exploration before potboiler thrills. Masterminded by the creators of FX’s oft-overlooked legal drama Damages (Glenn Kessler, Todd A. Kessler and Daniel Zelman), it’s an actors showcase sporting a near perfect cast. Each Rayburn sibling fits into a universal mold – the caretaker peace officer (Kyle Chandler); the hotheaded bully (Norbert Leo Butz); the resourceful, sexpot sister (Linda Cardellini); the black sheep (Mendelsohn). Overseeing them all is a hangdog patriarch (Sam Shepard) and his doting wife (Sissy Spacek), beaming with pride for three children and terrified by one. Together they form a unit, but it’s the individual performances that keep the Rayburns from becoming stock cutouts, as they bounce off of one another with a ramshackle naturalism that clashes with their sunny surroundings.

Donning design by legendary Sopranos art director Scott Murphy, the Florida scenery of Bloodine carries all the comfort of a familiar beach home. This tranquility works to disarm the viewer for the series' slow build of fatalistic dread (which doesn’t exactly lend itself to “bingeing,” as there’s so much to digest). We feel welcome in the Rayburns’ home; their decades-old hotel a perfect spot to celebrate a honeymoon or hide a gaggle of skeletons, literal and figurative. Directed by a roster of HBO series titans (which includes Ed Bianchi and Daniel Attias) with a few notable guest spots (it's nice to see Carl Franklin's name on another Southern Gothic crime story), this Coastal vibe bleeds into the thriller aspects of the show quite nicely, adding an ophthalmic pop to the proceedings. One man carrying another's limp body through a marsh while both are clad in seersucker is a detail that only deepens the show's roots in Deep South mythology, never letting us escape the humid, homicidal climate.

Sissy Spacek has numerous splendid performances under her belt, ranging from her early work as a doe-eyed jailbait temptress in Michael Ritchie’s Prime Cut and Terrence Malick’s Badlands, to the dutiful yet demanding wife of conspiracy-obsessed lawyer Jim Garrison in JFK. With Bloodline, Spacek’s holding down a burning fort the same way she did in Todd Field’s Virgin Spring riff, In the Bedroom. There’s a security and grace she brings to matriarch Sally Rayburn that is balanced by a world-weary sadness. She is happy that her family is together in one place again after Danny comes home, working to quash whatever beefs brewed between the boys, as her daughter, Meg (Cardellini), climbs the corporate ladder. Her early scenes with Shepard radiate soothing, lived-in warmth, as the two parents hope that all is forgiven between their children.

But there’s also a distinct self-doubt that Sally may have failed a few times along the way whilst raising her brood. It’s no wonder her entire professional life has been geared toward creating a nest away from reality for other clans to vacation. She welcomes with open arms an idealistic happiness that can only be manufactured in a foldout chair by the sea, free from the stress and burden of everyday domestic trials. The Inn’s patrons all become Sally’s adopted children, smiling with clear eyes and full hearts. Meanwhile, her true flesh and blood plot to destroy each other, maneuvering with the cautious menace of hyenas.

Kyle Chandler has the busiest eyes in modern show business. Their now-patented squint and flicker are put to great use for the entirety of the first thirteen episodes of Bloodline. Whether his John Rayburn is staring at the charred remains of an immigration ferry or at the leathered countenances of his brothers' mugs, they alert you to the fact that the actor is always aware of his surroundings. Chandler is one of the great listeners in cinematic history. Watching him study and soak in a fellow performer's work is a joy to behold, as he masters the art of measured retort. To cite Eric Taylor from Friday Night Lights seems like it's doing the actor a disservice. The DNA of the Dillon Panthers coach is indubitably present (Chandler does a dad's disappointment better than just about anyone, alive or dead), but John Rayburn is his own man; a fully realized character added to the actor's growing, impressive canon.

Norbert Leo Butz possibly has the most difficult task of all, as Kevin Rayburn comes close to becoming a familial drama cliché. The middle child is the callous hot head – a blue-collar boat expert with a hair-trigger temper. A good ol' Florida Boy who is scared that the beautiful coastline his parents' Inn helped define will be overtaken by condos and country clubs, Butz connects with the gloomy desperation that is often found in beachfront lifers. His is an existence of beers, old t-shirts and rough palms from a life spent keeping fishing vessels and pleasure cruisers afloat.

It'd be easy to write off Kevin as a poorly conceived archetype but, every time he threatens to tip over into exaggeration, Butz pulls off a beguilingly soft moment, usually with estranged wife Belle (Katie Finneran, whom horror nerds will likely recognize from Tom Savini's Night of the Living Dead remake). Were it not for Belle, it wouldn't be difficult to picture Kevin going the washed up way of Butchie Yost in David Milch's unceremoniously cancelled John From Cincinnati; a needle in his arm on the floor of a dilapidated surfer spot. Where John struggles with keeping the Rayburns from killing each other, Kevin's biggest battle is one that rages inside his soul. He's the kid who refused to leave the beach once the sun went down, riding out a wave of alcoholism, cocaine and DIY nostalgia, never wanting his home to change with the times.

However good Butz is, the real stunner in Bloodline is Ben Mendelsohn. Many will recognize the Australian actor from his tiny part in The Dark Knight Rises, but Mendelsohn has quietly become the closest thing this generation has to a Warren Oates. His grime-smeared gutter rats in Place Beyond the Pines and Killing Them Softly are broken men who work outside the law. Just as Bennie’s suit becomes filthier and filthier over the course of Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Mendelsohn isn’t afraid to smear the dirt of his characters’ past mistakes all over his oily body. But Danny Rayburn is the first time the actor has been placed in such a prominent position, and Mendelsohn recognizes the opportunity to exhibit his New Hollywood-harkening performance style.

The most reductive view of acting is that of a series of choices, purposefully executed in order to build a fictional human being. But Mendelsohn inhabits his characters in a way that feels otherworldly, harnessing their essence effortlessly. Just as Oates could devastate you by silently sliding his paw across a porch to touch a heartbroken woman’s foot (as he does in Peter Fonda’s exemplary Western, The Hired Hand), Mendelsohn slyly manipulates both his family and the audience with tiny gestures, posture and cadence. But where Oates always kept the viewer’s sympathies in check with his commitment to portraits of lovable losers, Mendelsohn reels you in and then cuts your throat. Danny is a murderous big game fisherman, always baiting and then fileting his catch’s dead corpse. It’s a masterful performance that’s destined to go down in the pantheon of wondrous screen villains.

Perhaps the greatest accomplishment Bloodline achieves is that, amongst the backstabbing, sleeping around and outright murder, it captures the intimacy that comes from being bonded by blood to people you may not necessarily like under any other circumstance. But because they're "family," one learns to look past the very worst traits their kin possess because the same flesh is wrapped around their bones, too. There's an affection for devotion Bloodline displays that feels real and true; from the forgiveness of harsh words said in haste, to the comfort of just feeling a loved one's arm draped around your shoulder while sharing a beer after everyone else has turned it in for the day. Second, third and fourth chances are earned in these moments, no matter how many times those closest have fucked up or hurt you. Yes, there's a pulp construct built around this fraternal core, but it's this soulful spirit that sticks with the viewer long after they've finished these thirteen engrossing episodes.

If there’s a major criticism to be lobbed at the show, it’s that once the story veers into genre television trappings it begins to drag a bit until the requisite explosive finale (and somewhat half-assed twist). Meg’s redemptive journey into becoming a local defense attorney for one of the family’s wayward ex-employees feels like it undercuts Cardellini’s attempts to save the show’s only underdeveloped character. The woman’s major crime is one of blind patriarchal trust, which flies in the face of her otherwise resilient nature. Meanwhile, John’s trailing of a group of human traffickers picks up steam only once its connection to the main through-line is revealed. Both of these more traditional narrative threads feel like the creators not fully trusting the central ancestral mysteries they’ve woven. These are sizable quibbles, but also easily dismissible when compared to the rest of the first season’s impressive emotional heft. Plus, watching Danny become something of a beach bum Iago is never less than captivating, as Mendelsohn relishes playing an evil puppet master with lecherous glee.

Bloodline often moves like a cinematic memory painting, recalling John Sayles’ Texas masterwork Lone Star. Characters drift in and out of their own hazy recollections, sometimes letting them wash over in an uncontrollable fog. Living and dead, past and present – all of these things are often indistinguishable from one another, swirling together in a cacophony of Proustian heartache. There’s an indelible despondency that permeates the show’s frames, perfectly capturing the way family both believes in and fears one another. These are the people you’re stuck with, and sometimes, in order for the unit to survive throughout generations, sacrifices must be made. Lies are told to cover up crimes, tossed like verbal dirt on top of domestic casualties. However, the central question at the heart of Bloodline ultimately seems to be: how many loving ghosts can we live with before we become truly haunted? Netflix’s newest original may also be its very best, as Bloodline is unquestionably the streaming network’s most ecstatically truthful.