Brother Tied (1998): Derek Cainfrance’s Directorial Debut (Sundance Fest 1998)

Sundance Film Fest 1998–Watching Brother Tied, Derek M. Cainfrance’s stylishly imposing feature directorial debut, leaves no doubt that a much longer time was spent on the movie’s post-production than on its shooting.

A modern meditation, with some allegorical overtones, about the power of blood ties, the story concerns the relationship between two brothers who drift apart when a third party comes between them.

The helmer, though neophyte, shows a striking command of film grammar, but his noirish tale is drowned in style, resulting in a self-conscious work that doesn’t engage emotionally. Theatrical prospects are dim, though a small distributor might take a risk and showcase a film that should play well in the global festival circuit.

Cainfrance claims that his film was influenced by the real-life friendship that the lead actor, Keith Zimmerman, had developed with a black ex-convict.

However, narratively speaking, the basic story seems to be inspired by Kazan’s melodrama, East of Eden, including the names given to the two protagonists. Zimmerman plays the James Dean role, Cal, a handsome, sensitive youngster closely related to his brother Aaron (Jason Hauser). Things change when Cal befriends Cassius (Carey Westbrook), a black man from a totally different social class who owns a barbershop.

When Aaron provokes Cassius into a fight at a Christmas party, Cal sides with Cassius, instead of standing by his brother, which creates irreconcilable tension between the siblings. In a similar manner to East of Eden, in which a girl (Julie Harris) was the love object of both brothers, here, in addition to Cassius, there’s another “obstacle,” a beautiful woman named Camille (Christina Chang), who first goes out with Cal, then with Aaron. The scene at their mom’s house, when Cal shockingly realizes that Aaron’s mysterious date is his own Camille is so hypnotically staged and framed that its meaning and beauty go beyond this particular scene or even story. This, unfortunately, becomes a recurrent problem of the entire picture, where style overwhelmingly dominates the slight, rather familiar narrative.

Thematically, Cainfrance aims to comment on the curse–and binding force–of family ties, and how they often clash with social ties, such as the brotherhood of friendships.

Spanning a year, from one Christmas to the next, the tale conveys forcefully Cal’s hurt when even his mother cuts him off and his persistently intense need to once again belong to a family and home.

After the striking opening sequences, however, it becomes clear that formally and structurally, the director’s goal is to create a new cinematic milieu and to experiment with the dimensions of time and space. In this respect, Brother Tied recalls another stylishly noir exercise, Suture, which also placed two siblings (one black, one white) in a complex rhythmical structure that was more concerned with establishing its distinctive cinematic landscape than promoting its central murder mystery and identity transformation.

Cinephiles and students will rejoice at deconstructing the film’s aesthetics, influenced by, among others, Eisenstein’s dialectical montage, Pudovkin’s continuity editing and parallel framing, Cassavetes’ telephoto lensing, Godard’s elliptical strategy. Technically, there is not a flat shot or a careless frame in the entire film, which has been constructed thoroughly, bric-a-brac. However, after watching one reel with sheer amazement, the self-consciousness (though not indulgence) of the enterprise takes precedence, giving the film an aura of a surreal aesthetic exercise.

Thesping is decent, though clearly Brother Tied is not a movie about acting. In the lead, Jimmy Dean-like role, the highly photogenic and likeable Zimmerman registers strongly, holding together the fragile story. Rounding out the triangle, Carey Westbrook, as the black outsider, and Jason Hauser, as the other brother, also lend strong physical presence to a film’s whose strongest scenes are silent.

Special kudos go to helmer Cainfrance, who also functioned as a lenser, and his gifted crew, including art director Dave Handley, lighting director Chris Kallemeyn, and Joey Curtis, Jimmy D. Helton, and Steve Hidingerand responsible, among others, for the sumptuous visual and sound montage.


A Pope Innocent and Celluloid Studios production, in association with Antiques Made Weekly Films and Morgan 100 Entertainment. Produced by Alexis Howerton, Todd Lubin, and Chase Morgan. Executive producers, Juan Amabert, Marcina Oliveira. Co-producer, Lara Wolfe. Directed by Derek M. Cainfrance. Screenplay, Cainfrance, Joey Curtis, Mike Tillmann. Camera (B&W, Color), Cainfrance; lighting director, Chris Kalleymeyn; art direction, David Handley; sound (Dolby), Joey Curtis; associate producers, Susan Cohen, Bernard Goldberg, Jean Helms, Jimmy and Charlotta Helton, Oliver Katz, Neil and Tom Morgan, James Wahlberg; assistant director, Mike Tillmann.

Shown in American Spectrum (also in Berlin Fest)

Running time: 109 minutes


Cal…….Keith Zimmerman
Cassius…Carey Westbrook
Aaron……..Jason Hauser
Camille…Christina Chang
Mika……..Jacques Scott
Dad…….Gary Cainfrance
Mom……….Karen Krause