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…

We’re not owners here, Karen. We’re just passing through.

Out of Africa (1985)
I did not warm to Out of Africa on my initial viewing, which would probably have been a few years after its theatrical release. It was exactly as the publicity warned, said my cynical side; a shallow-yet-bloated, awards-baiting epic romance. This was little more than a well-dressed period chick flick, the allure of which was easily explained by its lovingly photographed exotic vistas and Robert Redford rehearsing a soothing Timotei advert on Meryl Streep’s distressed locks. That it took Best Picture only seemed like confirmation of it as all-surface and no substance. So, on revisiting the film, I was curious to see if my tastes had “matured” or if it deserved that dismissal. 

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…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

If you could just tell me what those eyes have seen.

Alita: Battle Angel (2019)
(SPOILERS) Robert Rodriguez’ film of James Cameron’s at-one-stage-planned film of Yukito Kishiro’s manga Gunnm on the one hand doesn’t feel overly like a Rodriguez film, in that it’s quite polished, so certainly not of the sort he’s been making of late – definitely a plus – but on the other, it doesn’t feel particularly like a Jimbo flick either. What it does well, it mostly does very well – the action, despite being as thoroughly steeped in CGI as Avatar – but many of its other elements, from plotting to character to romance, are patchy or generic at best. Despite that, there’s something likeable about the whole ludicrously expensive enterprise that is Alita: Battle Angel, a willingness to be its own kind of distinctive misfit misfire.

Mountains are old, but they're still green.

Roma (2018)
(SPOILERS) Roma is a critics' darling and a shoe-in for Best Foreign Film Oscar, with the potential to take the big prize to boot, but it left me profoundly indifferent, its elusive majesty remaining determinedly out of reach. Perhaps that's down to generally spurning autobiographical nostalgia fests – complete with 65mm widescreen black and white, so it's quite clear to viewers that the director’s childhood reverie equates to the classics of old – or maybe the elliptical characterisation just didn't grab me, but Alfonso Cuarón's latest amounts to little more than a sliver of substance beneath all that style.

Life is like a box of timelines. You feel me?

Russian Doll Season One
(SPOILERS) It feels like loading the dice to proclaim something necessarily better because it’s female-driven, but that’s the tack The Hollywood Reporter took with its effusive review of Russian Doll, suggesting “although Nadia goes on a similar journey of self-discovery to Bill Murray’s hackneyed reporter in Groundhog Day, the fact that the show was created, written by and stars women means that it offers up a different, less exploitative and far more thoughtful angle” (than the predominately male-centric entries in the sub-genre). Which rather sounds like Rosie Knight changing the facts to fit her argument. And ironic, given star Natasha Lyonne has gone out of her way to stress the show’s inclusive message. Russian Dollis good, but the suggestion that “unlike its predecessors (it) provides a thoughtfulness, authenticity and honesty which makes it inevitable end (sic) all the more powerful” is cobblers.

We’re looking for a bug no one’s seen before. Some kind of smart bug.

Starship Troopers (1997)
(SPOILERS) Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi trio of Robocop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers are frequently claimed to be unrivalled in their genre, but it’s really only the first of them that entirely attains that rarefied level. Discussion and praise of Starship Troopers is generally prefaced by noting that great swathes of people – including critics and cast members – were too stupid to realise it was a satire. This is a bit of a Fight Club one, certainly for anyone from the UK (Verhoeven commented “The English got it though. I remember coming out of Heathrow and seeing the posters, which were great. They were just stupid lines about war from the movie. I thought, ‘Finally someone knows how to promote this.’”) who needed no kind of steer to recognise what the director was doing. And what he does, he does splendidly, even if, at times, I’m not sure he entirely sustains a 129-minute movie, since, while both camp and OTT, Starship Troopers is simultaneously required t…

Even after a stake was driven through its heart, there’s still interest.

Prediction 2019 Oscars
Shockingly, as in I’m usually much further behind, I’ve missed out on only one of this year’s Best Picture nominees– Vice isn’t yet my vice, it seems – in what is being suggested, with some justification, as a difficult year to call. That might make for must-see appeal, if anyone actually cared about the movies jostling for pole position. If it were between Black Panther and Bohemian Rhapsody (if they were even sufficiently up to snuff to deserve a nod in the first place), there might be a strange fascination, but Joe Public don’t care about Roma, underlined by it being on Netflix and stillconspicuously avoided by subscribers (if it were otherwise, they’d be crowing about viewing figures; it’s no Bird Box, that’s for sure).

You use a scalpel. I prefer a hammer.

Mission: Impossible - Fallout (2018)
(SPOILERS) The latest instalment of the impossibly consistent in quality Mission: Impossible franchise has been hailed as the best yet, and with but a single dud among the sextet that’s a considerable accolade. I’m not sure it's entirely deserved – there’s a particular repeated thematic blunder designed to add some weight in a "hero's validation" sense that not only falls flat, but also actively detracts from the whole – but as a piece of action filmmaking, returning director Christopher McQuarrie has done it again. Mission: Impossible – Fallout is an incredible accomplishment, the best of its ilk this side of Mad Max: Fury Road.