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…

Our very strength incites challenge. Challenge incites conflict. And conflict... breeds catastrophe.

The MCU Ranked Worst to Best

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.

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…

Can you float through the air when you smell a delicious pie?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
(SPOILERS) Ironically, given the source material, think I probably fell into the category of many who weren't overly disposed to give this big screen Spider-Man a go on the grounds that it was an animation. After all, if it wasn’t "good enough" for live-action, why should I give it my time? Not even Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's pedigree wholly persuaded me; they'd had their stumble of late, although admittedly in that live-action arena. As such, it was only the near-unanimous critics' approval that swayed me, suggesting I'd have been missing out. They – not always the most reliable arbiters of such populist fare, which made the vote of confidence all the more notable – were right. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a first-rate Spider-Man movie, it's a fresh, playful and (perhaps) surprisingly heartfelt origins story.

Stupid adult hands!

Shazam! (2019)
(SPOILERS) Shazam! is exactly the kind of movie I hoped it would be, funny, scary (for kids, at least), smart and delightfully dumb… until the final act. What takes place there isn’t a complete bummer, but right now, it does pretty much kill any interest I have in a sequel.

I have discovered the great ray that first brought life into the world.

Frankenstein (1931)
(SPOILERS) To what extent do Universal’s horror classics deserved to be labelled classics? They’re from the classical Hollywood period, certainly, but they aren’t unassailable titans that can’t be bettered – well unless you were Alex Kurtzman and Chris Morgan trying to fashion a Dark Universe with zero ingenuity. And except maybe for the sequel to the second feature in their lexicon. Frankenstein is revered for several classic scenes, boasts two mesmerising performances, and looks terrific thanks to Arthur Edeson’s cinematography, but there’s also sizeable streak of stodginess within its seventy minutes.

Only an idiot sees the simple beauty of life.

Forrest Gump (1994)
(SPOILERS) There was a time when I’d have made a case for, if not greatness, then Forrest Gump’s unjust dismissal from conversations regarding its merits. To an extent, I still would. Just not nearly so fervently. There’s simply too much going on in the picture to conclude that the manner in which it has generally been received is the end of the story. Tarantino, magnanimous in the face of Oscar defeat, wasn’t entirely wrong when he suggested to Robert Zemeckis that his was a, effectively, subversive movie. Its problem, however, is that it wants to have its cake and eat it.

Do not mention the Tiptoe Man ever again.

Glass (2019)
(SPOILERS) If nothing else, one has to admire M Night Shyamalan’s willingness to plough ahead regardless with his straight-faced storytelling, taking him into areas that encourage outright rejection or merciless ridicule, with all the concomitant charges of hubris. Reactions to Glass have been mixed at best, but mostly more characteristic of the period he plummeted from his must-see, twist-master pedestal (during the period of The Village and The Happening), which is to say quite scornful. And yet, this is very clearly the story he wanted to tell, so if he undercuts audience expectations and leaves them dissatisfied, it’s most definitely not a result of miscalculation on his part. For my part, while I’d been prepared for a disappointment on the basis of the critical response, I came away very much enjoying the movie, by and large.

Just make love to that wall, pervert!

Seinfeld 2.10: The Statue
The Premise
Jerry employs a cleaner, the boyfriend of an author whose book Elaine is editing. He leaves the apartment spotless, but Jerry is convinced he has made off with a statue.