Skip to main content

You should know that I have always taken the path that is most right.

A Most Violent Year
(2014)

(SPOILERS) A most misleading title, such that one might expect this to be the tale of a hoodlum doing hoodlum-type things. It’s closer to the anti-that, as Oscar Isaac’s ‘80s entrepreneur, working in a corrupt business but avoiding mobster tactics, finds his resources and nerves tested when all around beginning applying pressure. J. C. Chandor’s film is an immaculately crafted piece, one that slowly ratchets up the pressure while ensuring you’re never quite sure direction its going to head in next.


One of Chandor’s achievements here is fashioning a protagonist whom we initially believe is self-assured and in control, but is actually nothing of the sort. While Abel Morales (Isaac), is right to assert that arming his oil delivery men (who are being regularly hijacked) will only bring down further trouble, and pressure from Assistant District Attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo), who is investigating him for, amongst other things, tax evasion and price fixing, the solutions to his problems (most pressing being securing a loan to buy a piece of property when his bank falls through) come through others with more steel and resolve than he. And crucially, it is his way that leads to the film’s singular fatality.


In particular, it’s Morales’ wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), whose own father ran the dodgy business he bought, who displays an affinity for the moral turpitude he seeks to avoid. She has been cooking the books for years (albeit he has let her get on with it), she’s happy to carry an unregistered hand gun, something he refuses (to protect their children) and she’s the one with the foresight to skim money and stash it away in a hidden bank account, foreseeing the risks inherent in Abel’s business strategy. She knows it’s simpler just to do it than debate it with him.


In that sense she’s more a Lady Macbeth who doesn’t need her man to screw his courage to the stick post (albeit she uses moll language, warning Lawrence Abel will make it his mission in life to ruin him, she is only half-truthing when she says “We’re not who you think we are”; that’s only the case with Abel); she’s getting the job done for him, as is – perhaps rather crudely – illustrated in the scene where she pops a couple of caps in a car-battered deer before her tentative husband can put it out of its distress with a crowbar.


Abel refuses to accept how the world works, and must come to terms with it in order to progress. Lawrence very much does accept it, however, presumably picking on Abel, of all those in the business he might have picked on, because he sees someone who will rise in influence, as the end bears out, and will aid him in his political ambitions (very The Wire, of which Peter Gerety has a role as a Teamsters guy). Lawrence’s concerns, when he expresses frustration, are those of reputation, of how any failure will be perceived by others, rather than seeing justice served. And Abel’s lawyer Andrew Walsh (the excellent Albert Brooks, sporting an unlikely hairpiece) resigns himself to his client’s edicts but knows in each situation there is a different way of doing things that is part of the way of things, be it arming drivers or not telling Abel about his wife’s stash.


In the final scene Abel suggests to Lawrence that he always chose the path that was “most right”, and for him that involves appearance – like Lawrence – more than anything he fundamentally believes. So he sends Julian (Elyes Gabel) back out to work without protection, relying ona persuasive tongue to put his employees in harm’s way. When Julian blows his brains out, Abel shows no compassion (he even doesn’t persuade him not to do it; at least he isn’t pointing the gun at his former boss any more). Rather, his concern is for the oil spurting out of the bullet-punctured tank. Abel has his own moral vacuum, one that encapsulates the ‘80s white collar “greed is good” ethos; why else would he marry a woman he has nothing in common with if it wasn’t a means to an end in his business endeavours. When Andrew asks, “Why do you want it so much?” It could be Gordon Gekko replying, “I have no idea what you mean”.


But Abel’s presentable veneer doesn’t solve the situation with his drivers; indeed it’s only when he puts a gun in the mouth of a hijacker that he resolves the matter (one might say he’s dignified in his restraint, but he still had to go to that place). And it’s a resolution that doesn’t account for the pervading violence and corruption surrounding Abel. Whoever broke into his house wasn’t part of their outfit, or whoever beat up his fresh-faced salesman; the implication is, it may be Alessandro Nivola’s rival and “friend” Peter. Like Anna, he comes from the business, and like Anna, he has only nominally changed his ways and differentiated himself from his father’s mob practices (which he pretty much admits to when Abel goes to him for a loan).  Or perhaps the Hassidic Jews he arranged his teetering land buy with are in fact masterminds of the operation, or at least willing accomplices to the hijackers storing their goods; either way, it is clear no one is operating by Abel’s perceived code but Abel.


Chandor elicits faultless performances from his cast. Isaac goes from strength to strength as “Mr Fucking American Dream”, treading a path of turmoil beneath outward composure, while Chastain brings easy mettle. Good to see Nivola back in a decent role, and Oyelowo gives the kind of measured showing that speaks volumes. Chandor’s film is a slippery affair, and like his earlier Margin Call it tackles the often difficult to dramatise subject of money making by any means. But it’s more oblique than that picture, content to let viewers fill in the gaps. A Most Violent Year has been compared to the work of Sidney Lumet, but apart from the New York milieu it doesn’t really feel like a Lumet film; it lacks the grit and immediacy, insulated by an ambient score from Alex Ebert. It’s a more restrained picture, and its greater merits percolate through as one reflects on it.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Would you like Smiley Sauce with that?

American Beauty (1999)
(SPOILERS) As is often the case with the Best Picture Oscar, a backlash against a deemed undeserved reward has grown steadily in the years since American Beauty’s win. The film is now often identified as symptomatic of a strain of cinematic indulgence focussing on the affluent middle classes’ first world problems. Worse, it showcases a problematic protagonist with a Lolita-fixation towards his daughter’s best friend (imagine its chances of getting made, let alone getting near the podium in the #MeToo era). Some have even suggested it “mercifully” represents a world that no longer exists (as a pre-9/11 movie), as if such hyperbole has any bearing other than as gormless clickbait; you’d have to believe its world of carefully manicured caricatures existed in the first place to swallow such a notion. American Beauty must own up to some of these charges, but they don’t prevent it from retaining a flawed allure. It’s a satirical take on Americana that, if it pulls its p…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

You're waterboarding me.

The Upside (2017)
(SPOILERS) The list of US remakes of foreign-language films really ought to be considered a hiding to nothing, given the ratio of flops to unqualified successes. There’s always that chance, though, of a proven property (elsewhere) hitting the jackpot, and every exec hopes, in the case of French originals, for another The Birdcage, Three Men and a Baby, True Lies or Down and Out in Beverly Hills. Even a Nine Months, Sommersby or Unfaithful will do. Rather than EdTV. Or Sorcerer. Or Eye of the Beholder. Or Brick Mansions. Or Chloe. Or Intersection (Richard Gere is clearly a Francophile). Or Just Visiting. Or The Man with One Red Shoe. Or Mixed Nuts. Or Original Sin. Or Oscar. Or Point of No Return. Or Quick Change. Or Return to Paradise. Or Under Suspicion. Or Wicker Park. Or Father’s Day.

Is CBS Corporate telling CBS News "Do not air this story"?

The Insider (1999)
(SPOILERS) The Insider was the 1999 Best Picture Oscar nominee that didn’t. Do any business, that is. Which is, more often than not, a major mark against it getting the big prize. It can happen (2009, and there was a string of them from 2014-2016), but aside from brief, self-congratulatory “we care about art first” vibes, it generally does nothing for the ceremony’s profile, or the confidence of the industry that is its bread and butter. The Insider lacked the easy accessibility of the other nominees – supernatural affairs, wafer-thin melodramas or middle-class suburbanite satires. It didn’t even brandish a truly headlines-shattering nail-biter in its conspiracy-related true story, as earlier contenders All the President’s Men and JFK could boast. But none of those black marks prevented The Insider from being the cream of the year’s crop.

I’m what you might call a champagne problem.

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (2019)
(SPOILERS) The idea of teaming the two most engaging characters from the recent Fast & Furious movies for a spin-off seems like a no-brainer for making something better than Fast & Furious at its best (somewhere around 6 & 7), but there’s a flaw to this thinking (even if the actual genesis of the movie wasn’t Dwayne Johnson swearing off being on the same set as Vin again); the key to F&F succeeding is the ensemble element, and the variety of the pick’n’mix of characters. Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw – I can’t help thinking the over-announced title itself stresses an intrinsic lack of confidence somewhere at Universal – duly provides too much of a good thing, ensuring none of the various talents employed are fully on top of their game.

What about the meaningless line of indifference?

The Lion King (2019)
(SPOILERS) And so the Disney “live-action” remake train thunders on regardless (I wonder how long the live-action claim would last if there was a slim hope of a Best Animated Feature Oscar nod?) I know I keep repeating myself, but the early ‘90s Disney animation renaissance didn’t mean very much to me; I found their pictures during that period fine, but none of them blew me away as they did critics and audiences generally. As such, I have scant nostalgia to bring to bear on the prospect of a remake, which I’m sure can work both ways. Aladdin proved to be a lot of fun. Beauty and the Beast entirely tepid. The Lion King, well, it isn’t a badfilm, but it’s wearying its slavish respectfulness towards the original and so diligent in doing it justice, you’d think it was some kind of religious artefact. As a result, it is, ironically, for the most part, dramatically dead in the water.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

... you’re being uncharacteristically non-hyper-verbal.

Movies on My Mind Week Ending 7 May 2016
The Irishman
The Irishman (formerly I Heard You Paint Houses, based on Charles Brandt’s account of mob hitman Frank Sheeran, who was chums with Jimmy Hoffa, whom he professed to have offed) has been gestating for what seems like forever. I’d been wondering about its expiry date, as the names attached throughout have been the ever-longer-in-the-tooth holy trio of De Niro, Pacino and Pesci.
Now it seems there's a tight window (we’ll know by this time next week) for financing coming together. It seems the plan is to using de-aging technology (most recently seen making Downey Jr look less than zero in Civil War) to work its regressing magic on these wise guys. I’m a bit uneasy about that, as no matter how good it is, it’s distracting. Not that I think Scorsese would go there if he didn’t think he could pull it off, but it will still be there in the viewer’s mind.
Hopefully he’ll make going back to the Mob worthwhile; I’d presume so, as if his word…