Monday, February 9, 2015

A Most Violent Year

A MOST VIOLENT YEAR       B+         
USA  (125 mi)  2014  ‘Scope  d:  J.C. Chandor 

There is always a path that is most right. 
—Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac)

A throwback to the 70’s, in particular the peculiarly darkened style of THE GODFATHER saga (1972 – 74), though the film takes place in New York City in 1981, a year the city reportedly saw one of the highest crime rates in its history, starring Oscar Isaac from Inside Llewyn Davis (2012) as Abel Morales, owner of a small city oil company.  What’s immediately apparent is the degree that Isaac channels Al Pacino’s performance of Michael Corleone from THE GODFATHER, where he continually tries to be that noble figure not only for his family, but his every move, even while being investigated and heavily scrutinized by the police, is made to garner “respect.”  While his business was inherited through marriage, where his beautiful wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) comes from mob money, Abel spends the entire movie trying to get out from under the shadow of her father’s criminal underworld reputation, trying to prove to anyone who will listen that he runs a legitimate business.  This becomes a running question throughout the film, as Chandor plays close to the vest when doling out plot information, keeping viewers on edge throughout even though it’s filmed in a mesmerizingly slow and hypnotic style.  Stylistically, this low-key film is in a world by itself where nothing else really compares, shot deliberately with a degree of unusually quiet elegance throughout by Selma (2014) cinematographer Bradford Young, making a bold directorial statement simply by charting new territory in a popular genre that has been explored to death.  Rather than accentuate the bloodshed, this film draws us into the strange and curious world of buying property and obtaining a loan, which is an art in itself when you’re trying to accumulate well over a million dollars, mostly from dirty guys that would just as soon rip your head off.  While Abel makes a down payment on a piece of land owned by Hassidic Jews overlooking the waterfront, he comes under intense pressure from all sides when it comes to making the final payment, as if he misses the deadline he could lose it all.  The threatening violence that pervades the mood throughout this film is also met with everyday, ordinary acts of theft, where Abel’s oil trucks are coming under attack, with his drivers are beat up at gunpoint and left on the street while their trucks are hijacked in order to steal every ounce of oil.  This is a dirty business reeking with a history of corruption, where his independent drivers may be challenging the solidarity of the Teamsters union, his competitors may be trying to muscle him out of the way, while Abel’s business practices are being thoroughly investigated by the District Attorney (David Oyelowo, also from Selma) who is bound and determined to uncover wrongdoing in an election year. 

Written by Chandor himself, the film is an existential nightmare where a well-intentioned individual is thwarted at every turn, bearing some similarities to the moral complexities of the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man (2009), where like the Old Testament character of Job, a man is challenged at every step of the way but still tries to find a meaningful significance to it all, to be a serious man, someone whose moral values remain intact and where God still has a place in his life.  While the religious context is nonexistent in this movie, replaced by a solidly entrenched, mob-driven capitalistic system that is ripe with corruption, Abel is extremely cognizant of his family’s stature in the New York community, where his every move is driven to elevate their place in society.  While his competitors are thugs that use mafia tactics, what’s intriguing about this story is that these are his friends and relatives, people that he socializes with and attends family gatherings, where cutthroat tactics is all they know.  While Abel tries not to take it personally, he’s not the one that is strong-armed at gunpoint and hauled out of their trucks like his drivers who have literally come under siege.  While common sense suggests they might arm themselves, this is not only illegal and could jeopardize the business, but it also leads to shootouts on public thoroughfares where innocent people are subject to being shot and killed.  Short of hiring armed guards, which the company cannot afford, it’s a tricky situation that plagues not only Abel but his drivers, especially Julian (Elyes Gabel), who very much like Abel is trying to build a life for himself, to make something out of nothing, both of them starting out as drivers, but Julian has the misfortune of being traumatized by the events, especially when he repeatedly gets targeted.  Ever since Steven Soderbergh’s underrated OUT OF SIGHT (1998), comedian Albert Brooks has made the remarkable transition to playing heavies, where he is brilliant underplaying the role of Andrew Walsh, a mafia lawyer, but he’s an essential component in any business transaction, as he’s the keeper of the flame, a company guy trusted by the underworld, the kind of person who has lived to see it all happen before his eyes, where nothing phases him any more, as he knows how things get done.  Andrew is genuinely sympathetic to Abel, as he’s a kid with good instincts, but he may be in over his head. 

Perhaps the real surprise in the film is the performance of Jessica Chastain as Anna, as no nonsense as any man, whose life behind the scenes is rarely even hinted at, but becomes more prominent as the film progresses, where Abel grows increasingly desperate, where his back is against it, yet his calibrated performance remains deliberate and measured throughout.  Anna is a whole other story, where the audience is fortunate to see Chastain in a more menacing role as a gangster’s moll, the femme fatale, a Lady Macbeth, a woman from the streets who knows her way around a crooked business even as her husband strives to be a decent man.  While she’s not easily intimidated, as evidenced by the way she mouths off to the District Attorney when they conduct a search of the home during her young child’s birthday party, seen passing out party favors to each kid at the door as they leave prematurely before reminding the counselor, “This was very disrespectful,” while flicking a cigarette in his face.  As the feds bring multiple indictments against him, Abel has all his money tied up in buying this invaluable piece of land, and when his legitimate lenders dry up, scared away by the feds, he has to make the rounds through the nefarious connections of his own family, hat in hand, asking for last minute loans.  Alessandro Nivola as Abel’s sinister rival Peter Forente is particularly creepy, a guy whose life is so defined by gangland murders that he basically has to spend his entire life behind a protected fortress.  Yet this is a guy he grew up with, who could easily be behind the hijackings, but Abel treats him as a serious man, where otherwise he’d be thrown out on his ear.   The crucial relationship between Chastain and Isaac is superbly developed, continually underplayed, with restrained fireworks and plenty of surprises in store, where this film continually takes unexpected turns in the road, yet never for a minute is anything less than compelling.  Chandor, the driving force behind Robert Redford’s wordless performance in All Is Lost (2013), continues to be a director of intrigue, refusing to follow anyone’s path but his own, growing up in New Jersey, a graduate of The College of Wooster, making starkly different kinds of films than any of his compatriots, nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay with his first feature MARGIN CALL (2011) following more than a dozen years of making commercials.  In this he resembles Swedish director Roy Andersson, who has directed over 400 commercials, but also Ridley and Tony Scott, Jonathan Glazer, Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze, not to mention David Fincher.  The music by Alex Ebert is especially effective at the end, America for Me - YouTube (4:08), a dramatic rendition sounding much like Nina Simone.  

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