Director Joshua Marston’s obvious predecessor is John Sayles, and yet he lacks the traits that make his forefather occasionally insufferable as well as the ones that make him occasionally great. Both filmmakers are drawn to issue films buttressed by extensive research, but Sayles has long moonlit as a screenwriter-for-hire whose specialty is lurid creature features (Piranha, Alligator). Marston’s side job is the occasional television stint (Six Feet Under, In Treatment), but he has no apparent sense of humor. There’s no showman in him, as there is in Sayles; even as stuffy and plodding as Sayles’ Honeydripper gets, it at least concludes with a barnstorming blues show. It’s hard imagining anything fun ever happening in un film de Joshua Marston.
Of course, Marston does have a penchant for choosing subject matter even Sayles would find too grim. Maria Full of Grace, his debut, was a drug mule saga. The Forgiveness of Blood, its follow-up, tackles Albanian blood feuds. Nik (Tristan Halilaj, a non-pro like the rest of the cast) is a small town teenager whose modest dreams are snuffed out when a land dispute involving family members leaves a villager murdered. Despite that at least one of the perpetrators is in jail, a law, reaching past centuries, dictates the bereaved can take Nik’s life as retribution. Instead, he winds up under house arrest, fearing the inevitable should he get too antsy.
Effective as Maria was, it felt like it was written on a program. Blood is more expansive, less beholden to plot and more open to complexities. The characters are shown with one foot in the modern world, the other in the far distant past, expressing ambivalence over an antiquated law that should have went the way of medieval medicine. In his second feature, Marston exhibits a developing sense for themes, but he’s still wonky with character. Nik, like Maria before him, is a blank slate with first-thing-that-pops-in-the-head motives: he wants to open up an internet cafe and is in love with the school babe. The structure of Blood as a collection of short scenes kills any sense of his enveloping claustrophobia, while the tale builds to a conclusion that fails to take things to another level. Marston’s skills at research greatly dwarf his skills as a writer or a director—but then, he’s still young.