Director Bob Rafelson and Jack Nicholson had a number of memorable collaborations in the 1970s (Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens) and worked once together during the 1980s (The Postman Always Rings Twice) and again during the 1990s (Man Trouble). Towards the end of ‘90s, they made a nasty little neo-noir called Blood and Wine (1997). Much like filmmaker Robert Towne, Rafelson is a survivor of the ‘70s still using his reputation from that decade to make modestly budgeted, character-driven films – the kind that established his career in the first place. Blood and Wine is easily the best film from the later part of his career.
Alex Gates (Jack Nicholson) is a wine merchant in a dysfunctional marriage with his wife Suzanne (Judy Davis) and her slacker son, Jason (Stephen Dorff). He’s also got a sexy mistress named Gabriela (Jennifer Lopez) on the side and not above stealing from some of his high-end customers. In fact, he’s casing one house in particular with a diamond necklace worth a million dollars. His partner-in-crime is a low-life Brit named Victor (Michael Caine).
From the opening credits, Rafelson establishes the harshness of this world as Jason and his friend Henry (Harold Perrineau Jr.) catch and kill a shark on the beach for money. The almost nonchalant way that Jason puts the animal out of its misery speaks volumes about the rules that govern this world. Jason still lives with his parents who seem to be married but the magic is clearly long gone. Suzanne’s first line spoken to Alex says it all: “Nice to have you home, just for the novelty.” He offers up an excuse and she responds sarcastically. Suzanne probably has a pretty good idea of what he’s really been up to but is too tired to care or do anything about it. Judy Davis does a nice job of conveying her character’s world-weariness, like when she responds to his promise, “Things are gonna turn around,” with, “That’s your theme song.” They’re a couple clearly going through the motions.
Rafelson masterfully introduces us to all the characters and establishes their relationships with one another in the first 20 minutes. Then, he lets the various plot developments play out. As with most noirs, the fun is anticipating who will double-cross who as no one can be trusted because they all have their own agenda that doesn’t fully reveal itself until the film’s climactic moments. It’s a shell game of sorts as we figure out who’s playing whom and why. For example, Gabriela is fired from her nanny job and gets involved with Jason. Is she being sincere or is she playing an angle?
This is Jack Nicholson in one of his less showier roles, as if hooking back up with his old friend brought the character actor out in him again. It’s a meaty role that eschews the charismatic movie star parts he does in films like As Good As It Gets (1997), for much darker material. Alex is driven by greed and it gradually consumes him and Nicholson does a good job of conveying the effect it has over his character. Alex has his own wine store but business must not be too good as he’s broke. He may wear nice suits and have his own business but deep down he’s a simple thief, casing the safe of one of his wealthy clients and having an affair with their beautiful nanny who may or may not be in on the job. However, Alex is an amateur, which is why he’s in league with Victor, who, despite his crappy health, is a lethal, experienced criminal. Like many doomed noir protagonists, Alex dreams big – taking his cut of the job and running off with Gabriela to live a fabulous life. The reality is that at home his wife is still coping with an injury and is addicted to painkillers.
Michael Caine is excellent as a really nasty piece of work – an ex-convict lacking the social skills that Alex’s calculating, smooth operator has. Victor is a chain-smoker even though he’s one coughing fit away from keeling over on the spot. He is driven by his lack of time. He knows that he’s dying and Caine does a great job of conveying his character’s increasing desperation. With his painted on black hair and moustache, the veteran actor plays a world-class sleazoid and manages to all but steal the film away from Nicholson.
Along with Backbeat (1994), Blood and Wine is easily the best thing Stephen Dorff has done in a diverse if not uneven career. He plays the stepson who helps out with his stepfather’s business even though he’d rather spend his time fishing, which is his true passion. At first, Jason seems like a lazy twentysomething but as the film progresses, additional layers of his character are revealed and like everyone else, there is more to him than there seems. He is the only true innocent in the film but he soon gets caught up in Alex’s dirty dealings after his stepfather and mother have an argument that turns violent. The arc of his character is a fascinating one as he goes from an idealistic dreamer to a vengeful son.
Watching Blood and Wine is a sober reminder of just how interesting Jennifer Lopez was to watch on-screen before she started doing an endless stream of romantic comedies. She is quite good as a Cuban immigrant who risked her life to leave her native country and start a better life in the United States. She will do anything to stay. Lopez plays the role of vulnerable girl but she’s really a femme fatale, manipulating the men to get what she wants.
Jack Nicholson and Bob Rafelson had been trying to get Blood and Wine made since 1992 but the studios weren’t interested in a downbeat thriller filled with amoral, scheming characters. Rafelson realized that he would have to go the independent route. He managed to secure a modest, $11 million budget but it soon doubled when he persuaded Nicholson to come back on board – with his usual fee, natch. However, the actor wasn’t just in it for the money. Making Blood and Wine offered him a chance to reunite with Rafelson, whom he had made several films together, but also it was a change of pace from studio films like Mars Attacks! (1996). Rafelson said at the time, “I don’t know if he gets that many opportunities to play roles that challenge him.”
Blood and Wine received mostly positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave it three-and-a-half out of four stars and praised Michael Caine’s performance: “Here he is convincing and sardonically amusing as a wreck of a man who chain-smokes, coughs, spits up blood and still goes through the rituals of a jewel thief because that is who he is.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B-“ rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, “In fact, the real filial tenderness takes place between Nicholson and Caine. The two old curtain chewers display a real affection for one another as buddies linked as fellow losers, even if one is a 'respectable’ businessman and the other a lowlife who coughs up blood.” In his review for the Toronto Star, Peter Howell wrote, “Blood and Wine is hit-and-miss, and occasionally slips into rote drama. But other times, it cuts to the bone of human desires and fears.” The Globe and Mail’s Liam Lacey wrote, “Nowadays, every noir caper film seems to be a campy pastiche of references, but Rafelson and Nicholson get back to dirty basics of the genre: a whole universe of greed, lust and pain.”
In his review for The New York Times, Stephen Holden wrote, “And with its bleary humid atmosphere that evokes the march of time as a procession of tipsy tequila sunsets, it is wonderful at sustaining a mood of end-of-the-road tropical dissipation.” However, the Washington Post’s Desson Howe wrote, “Blood and Wine has neither the red cells nor the vintage to make the experience potent enough.” In his review for USA Today, Mike Clark wrote, “The movie’s own payoff is compelling enough, but the project has a weightless feel that limits involvement.”
Caine and Nicholson make a fun team to watch as the former sleazes his way through Blood and Wine with his greasy black hair and dry sense of humor that plays well off of the latter’s increasingly desperate schemer. Alex is an amateur crook who thinks he’s a professional while Victor looks like an amateur but is a pro. As the film progresses, Alex takes more damage and Victor’s health gets increasingly worse. They’re quite a broken-down pair of crooks that banter back and forth like an old married couple. Rafelson does not forget that ultimately this film is driven by its characters and lets us get to know them and their motivations so that we are personally involved in their respective fates. By the end of Blood and Wine plenty of the former rather than the latter has been spilled. This film has been seen as the conclusion to an informal trilogy of films about the decay of American values and an examination of troubled families that began with Five Easy Pieces (1970) and The King of Marvin Gardens (1972). Like those films, Blood and Wine features a deeply dysfunctional family only this time one of its members is driven to extreme behavior for money. Rafelson shows how Alex’s actions have ramifications, affecting those around him, tainting everything with awful results.