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

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…

Prepare the Heathen’s Stand! By order of purification!

Apostle (2018)
(SPOILERS) Another week, another undercooked Netflix flick from an undeniably talented director. What’s up with their quality control? Do they have any? Are they so set on attracting an embarrassment of creatives, they give them carte blanche, to hell with whether the results are any good or not? Apostle's an ungainly folk-horror mashup of The Wicker Man (most obviously, but without the remotest trace of that screenplay's finesse) and any cult-centric Brit horror movie you’d care to think of (including Ben Wheatley's, himself an exponent of similar influences-on-sleeve filmmaking with Kill List), taking in tropes from Hammer, torture porn, and pagan lore but revealing nothing much that's different or original beyond them.

You can’t just outsource your entire life.

Tully (2018)
(SPOILERS) A major twist is revealed in the last fifteen minutes of Tully, one I'll happily admit not to have seen coming, but it says something about the movie that it failed to affect my misgivings over the picture up to that point either way. About the worst thing you can say about a twist is that it leaves you shrugging.

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

No one understands the lonely perfection of my dreams.

Ridley Scott Ridders Ranked
During the '80s, I anticipated few filmmakers' movies more than Ridley Scott's; those of his fellow xenomorph wrangler James Cameron, perhaps. In both cases, that eagerness for something equalling their early efforts receded as they studiously managed to avoid the heights they had once reached. Cameron's output dropped off a cliff after he won an Oscar. Contrastingly, Scott's surged like never before when his film took home gold. Which at least meant he occasionally delivered something interesting, but sadly, it was mostly quantity over quality. Here are the movies Scott has directed in his career thus far - and with his rate of  productivity, another 25 by the time he's 100 may well be feasible – ranked from worst to best.

Well, you did take advantage of a drunken sailor.

Tomb Raider (2018)
(SPOILERS) There's evidently an appetite out there for a decent Tomb Raider movie, given that the lousy 2001 incarnation was successful enough to spawn a (lousy) sequel, and that this lousier reboot, scarcely conceivably, may have attracted enough bums on seats to do likewise. If we're going to distinguish between order of demerits, we could characterise the Angelina Jolie movies as both pretty bad; Tomb Raider, in contrast, is unforgivably tedious.

This is it. This is the moment of my death.

Fearless (1993)
Hollywood tends to make a hash of any exploration of existential or spiritual themes. The urge towards the simplistic, the treacly or the mawkishly uplifting, without appropriate filtering or insight, usually overpowers even the best intentions. Rarely, a movie comes along that makes good on its potential and then, more than likely, it gets completely ignored. Such a fate befell Fearless, Peter Weir’s plane crash survivor-angst film, despite roundly positive critical notices. For some reason audiences were willing to see a rubgy team turn cannibal in Alive, but this was a turn-off? Yet invariably anyone who has seen Fearless speaks of it in glowing terms, and rightly so.

Weir’s pictures are often thematically rich, more anchored by narrative than those of, say, Terrence Malick but similarly preoccupied with big ideas and their expression. He has a rare grasp of poetry, symbolism and the mythic. Weir also displays an acute grasp of the subjective mind-set, and possesses …

If you want to have a staring contest with me, you will lose.

Phantom Thread (2017)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps surprisingly not the lowest grossing of last year's Best Picture Oscar nominees (that was Call Me by Your Name) but certainly the one with the least buzz as a genuine contender, subjected as Phantom Thread was to a range of views from masterpiece (the critics) to drudge (a fair selection of general viewers). The mixed reaction wasn’t so very far from Paul Thomas Anderson's earlier The Master, and one suspects the nomination was more to do with the golden glow of Daniel Day-Lewis in his first role in half a decade (and last ever, if he's to be believed) than mass Academy rapture with the picture. Which is ironic, as the relatively unknown Vicky Krieps steals the film from under him.

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

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.