Tuesday, January 6, 2015

A Most Violent Year (****)

Written and Directed by J.C. Chandor


J.C. Chandor's latest film, his third feature, recalls Francis Ford Coppola's first Godfather film. Cinematographer Bardford Young is doing his best Gordon Willis impression, drowning the characters in the shadows of backdoor dealings and corruption. Both films are lead by a protagonist who sees the edge and always tries to keep away - in a way, both films are about the fight you put up to protect your soul, the effort put up to at least raise the appearance of righteousness. Why distributor A24 Films waited till December 31st to release the film is beyond me. If it had been shown to audiences by mid-November, it would have gotten it's proper due as 2014's most phenomenal cinematic achievement; a movie so expertly made and methodically told, it holds you in its ever-tightening grip until its very end. Films of this quality come so seldom, and yet they often get looked over as I fear A Most Violent Year will be. I wasn't in love with Chandor's first film, Margin Call, a Mamet-esque chat fest about the 2007 financial crisis' effect on several employees in a NYC investment bank, but his 2013 film All is Lost was a brilliant one-man show where Robert Redford and Chandor orchestrated one of the most thrilling meditations on mortality that I've ever seen. A Most Violent Year all but confirms Chandor's placement at the top of the heap amongst new American filmmakers, and shows the kind of masterpiece that the director is capable of.

If Chandor is channeling Coppola here, than his star, Oscar Isaac, is channeling 1970's Al Pacino. Isaac, who is also enjoying a rapid climb amongst the ranks of contemporary film actors, plays Abel Morales, an immigrant in New York City enjoying much success in the heating oil business. Isaac plays Abel with the same cool, detached control that Pacino mastered Michael Corleone. Even their sharp hair and wool coats seem to mirror each other. The year is 1981, statistically one of the most violent years in the notorious history of NYC. Abel succeeds despite this, his ascent is so sharp and efficient, and he hopes to purchase a piece of land which will give him access to the harbor, thus cementing his place at the very top of Northeast oil, towering over his competition. His company, Standard Heating Oil, is having some trouble though. His trucks are getting stuck up, his drivers are getting beaten, and his business is getting jeopardized. Abel fears that his competitors, several separate companies who have all relinquished their power to criminal enterprise, are trying to kill Standard Heating Oil and the mortal threat that it poses. His wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), is the daughter of a known gangster, and offers her father's services to Abel, but Abel stays strong, trying to keep his business clean and do things the right way.

But time is ticking for Abel. He put a 40% down payment on the land he hopes to purchase and has only thirty days to come up with the rest of the money (about a million and a half dollars), or else his deposit, and the future of his company, is taken from him. With his trucks getting robbed more and more frequently, it becomes harder and harder for the bank to be trusted to come through with a loan to help Abel purchase the land. Not helping matters is the NYC district attorney (David Oyelowo) who promises to bring serious charges against Standard Heating Oil and believes that he has the evidence to take the company down. Abel's right-hand man and lawyer, Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks in a deliciously hideous toupée), tries to assure Abel that all things will be fine, but Abel cannot stand the humiliation of even the accusation of wrongdoing, having staked his reputation on staying clean in an industry of blatant illegality. The head of the teamsters (Peter Gerety) angrily protests that his drivers should be armed, but Abel refuses, not wanting to give the criminals a chance to put Abel behind bars for arming people without permits. As the thirty-day deadline gets closer, Abel's situation gets more and more tenuous, with everyone - especially the fiery Anna - pushing him to go beyond the law to protect himself against those trying to harm him.

A big subplot in the film revolves around the character of Julian (Elyes Gabel), a driver for Standard who is beaten brutally at the film's open when he tries to protect the truck. Julian, another Hispanic transfer to America, dreams of one day being a business man of Abel's stature. Abel pays special attention to Julian, even more so after his violent incident. He talks Julian into returning to the driver's seat even though his fear of another beating is causing him stress. Julian asks to please be moved into sales, but Abel denies him, even while he prepares fresh-faced caucasians for those positions. Abel cares for Julian and does wish to help him, but only so far as it helps his own situation. In a completely opposite situation is Peter Forente (Alessandro Nivola), the head of one of Abel's competitors, a young man who inherited his empire from a father whose iffy deals have landed him in prison. Peter has great respect for Abel, admires how he's been able to skyrocket to success despite not having to rely on the same backdoor deals that the Forentes have depended on. Julian and Peter represent the poles of power within A Most Violent Year, the two extremes that Abel is trying desperately to avoid: the helpless immigrant and the entitled businessman.

A Most Violent Year is about a man trying his damndest to stay out from under the control of organized crime, to stay on the straight and narrow. The efforts he takes to keep his soul push the line frequently, often conjuring questions as to how thin the line is between Abel's righteousness and his enemies' malevolence. Chandor and Isaac craft a fascinating character, a man who exudes grace and legitimacy, who still must claw his way through muck to get the empire he wishes for so badly. In the end, most of Abel's decisions, even his refusals to delve into crime, are self-serving. His business model is built on being clean, and he worries if he can even succeed if he behaves like his cohorts. His repulsion to criminal activity is met with Anna's fierce defiance. She's a woman who's always lived close to danger and may be a little more comfortable with it. Despite her crooked family ties, she dresses glamorously and plays the role of trophy wife exceptionally (and while we're mentioning film references, Chastain's hairstyle here is a dead ringer for Michelle Pfeiffer in Scarface). She's got more muscle to flex than Abel does, and while he does his best to resist her temptations into the murkier areas of business, it's always apparent that she has what it takes to get dirty.

Chastain has a reputation now as one of the best actors of her generation - not too long ago people were saying she may be the heir apparent to Meryl Streep - and A Most Violent Year shows the actress' latest reinvention. In the vast variety of roles that she has burned through in the last four years, it's hard to imagine anything that she can't do. In a way, she's closer to Tilda Swinton than she is to Streep. In this film, she plays the role of Anna Morales brilliantly, never going too hard into Lady MacBeth territory, instead playing a woman fed up with not being acknowledged for her intelligence. Abel is obviously an intelligent businessman with a savant-like savvy for finance, but Anna recognizes her integral contribution and uses it as leverage in the company and in her marriage. Oscar Isaac's reputation isn't as stellar as Chastain's, but his output lately has been just as outstanding. I thought he had the performance of 2013 in the Coen Brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis, and here he delivers a performance so perfectly-calibrated it's hard to imagine another performer doing a better job. Isaac plays Abel as a man who doesn't want to be a gangster but wants the gangster lifestyle. When Abel gets the land he so covets, he'll be able to work freely without fear from his competitors making sway, but Isaac is careful to leave a little menace in the twinkle of Abel's eyes. We're unsure of what he'll accomplish with such extraordinary power.

Chandor writes his screenplays by himself and shows commanding control as a director. Nobody since Paul Thomas Anderson has shown such a mastery of both sides of the filmmaking coin, along with a gift for nurturing fine performances from veteran actors (Jeff Nichols may be getting to this same realm soon, but the jury's still out). All his films seem deeply-rooted in a fantastical reality, the details of his created worlds seem meticulously detailed. His Margin Call script filled the characters with gallons of knowledge on Wall Street tactics; All is Lost spent more time on the practices of a solo sailor than any other film I can think of; and now A Most Violent Year seems in part based on the real-life practices of New York City companies in the midst of a frighteningly dangerous period of crime. Chandor studies the ins and outs of his characters and their settings more than any other American filmmaker working right now. His work with cinematographer Bradford Young (another up-and-comer with an impressive stretch of work in a few years) here is showy and wondrous. There's a simplicity to the way they craft such powerful images; the camera doesn't have to move much, it just has to be pointed at the right place at the right time. In A Most Violent Year, that's nearly the entire film.

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