Monday, January 26, 2015

A Most Violent Year

Alternate Title:  A Non-Violent Year

One sentence synopsis:    The owner of a heating oil company tries to keep his business afloat in the face of harassment by organized crime and investigations by the police in 1981 New York.

Things Havoc liked:  Back in 2011, when this project was new and my update schedule even more sketchy than it is now, I saw a little film called Margin Call, written and directed by a newcomer named J. C. Chandor. Though I didn't review Margin Call, it was an excellent little film, minimalist but highly realistic, about the 2008 Wall Street crash and the personalities that surrounded it. And one of the reasons I didn't review Margin Call was that I had, right out of the gate, torpedoed what credibility I could aspire to having by showing immoderate praise on a Zach Snyder action extravaganza by the name of Sucker Punch, a movie I absolutely loved and everyone else despised, probably rightly. A big part of why I dissented from this opinion had to do with a Guatemalan actor by the name of Oscar Isaac, who played the main villain in the film to an absolutely sleazy T. Isaac would go on to bigger and better things, winning a Golden Globe for Inside Llewyn Davis, but I remembered him for his turn there, and waited for an opportunity to run into him again. And now along comes a period crime drama, written and directed by J. C. Chandor, starring Oscar Isaac, and all my dreams can finally come true.

It is 1981, a year when New York really was the dirty, violence-prone urban war zone that European filmmakers still seem to think it is. Abel Morales (Isaac) is a successful businessman, owner of a city-wide heating oil and furnace company, a business rife with corruption, mafia-involvement, and general chicanery. On the brink of a high-risk deal that will make or break his company's future, he is forced to deal with an escalating campaign of intimidation and theft, as parties unknown send armed thugs to his house to threaten him and his family, and send others to beat his drivers and rob his trucks. The FBI, well aware that his entire industry is as corrupt as they come, is investigating him for fraud and assorted other white collar crimes, and the head of the local Teamster's union is pressing him to arm his drivers. And yet though everything I have just recited is the same sort of thing you see in every gangster movie, A Most Violent Year takes the quotidian route by emphasizing the banality of these things. Drivers are beaten up and their trucks stolen, and the world continues spinning, as Morales refuses, no matter what, to let anything that happens push him into a rash action, not even as his wife (Jessica Chastain) and his lawyer (Albert Brooks) and largely everyone else who cares to open their mouth insist that he take a harder line, all while he insists that he can handle it without everything spilling out of control.

And indeed, "controlled" is the word that comes to mind when I think of this film, a tight, slow, deliberate thing as unlike most gangster or gangster-related films as it's possible to be. Abel's consistent insistence that escalating the situation, even as the robberies stack up, will lead to nothing but disaster, include arguments that most movies like to sidestep, such as the fact that carrying a gun in New York City is extremely illegal, and that the consequences of doing so, even in defense of life-and-limb, could be absolutely catastrophic to his company. When a teamster representative demands that he arm his drivers, his reply of what will happen if one of them should choose to shoot their wife with it is a perspective you simply don't see in most action movies, wherein weapons are consequence-free problem solvers, resorted to as soon as matters cross the threshold. And Abel is not the only one who recognizes that there are limits to people's freedom of action in even a violent city. A stand-out scene midway through the film has gun-wielding thugs attempt to hijack one of his trucks, only for the driver to retaliate in kind, shooting back at the thugs with his own personal weapon. And yet rather than a shootout, the result is outrage, not from the public but from the thugs themselves, appalled by the driver's recklessness in opening fire on a crowded freeway, and who finally flee, in company with the driver they were trying to hijack, from the cops who will quite certainly arrest them all. New York is New York in this film, not Gotham City, and while crime is a real thing that happens, it is here treated realistically, moreso than most movies I think I've seen on the subject.

And of course all this is helped by the performances. Oscar Isaac is absolutely perfect here, as a driven businessman who comprehends the stakes he is playing for and what is and is not a true threat to his livelihood and family. His background is only hinted at, but hinted at effectively enough to get the idea of a self-made man trying to move forward in the world despite the efforts of most of his competitors to shut him down (as, of course, he is plotting to do to them). Jessica Chastain meanwhile, an actress I'm on record as not being wildly fond of, is as good here as I've ever seen her as Abel's wife Anna, whose background is clearly in the mafia, and who has inherited that mindset. Responsible for bookkeeping as well as strategic advice, she is prepared to let Abel handle things his way, but the possibility of her calling in her relatives to handle the matter in a manner more customary with gangster films hangs over the entire proceeding. Albert Brooks, meanwhile, whom I haven't seen in a thousand years, does a fine job as the apparently long-suffering company attorney, whose role is to be the first lawyer in the history of gangster movies to argue that the main character isn't being violent and risky enough. The rest of the cast is rounded out by fine performances from greater or lesser actors, from David Oyelowo, whom I seem to be unable to escape recently, who plays a DA well aware of how business and justice are done in his town, to Game of Thrones' Elyes Gabel, playing a panicky driver desperate to avoid being assaulted, to newcomer Annie Funke playing the presumed acting-boss of a rival organization, to which Abel must turn for alternately polite threats and money. Each of these actors does a fine job, understating their roles nicely, resulting in a movie that plays everything its given completely straight.

Things Havoc disliked:  Maybe too straight.

I don't have anything against a movie that eschews violence and vast intricate mafia wars for a focus on a more realistic slice of life, but movies have to entertain as well as educate and while I wouldn't say that A Most Violent Year ever gets boring, it does come across as an awful lot of buildup for not a whole lot of payoff. Not that I'm about to spoil the ending or anything, but the film downplays a lot of what in a more normal movie would be the primary plot so much that a good amount of what happens in the course of the film starts to feel rather pointless. Many mysteries, such as the armed man that Abel surprises outside his house, or the entire subplot with the young door-to-door salesman, are never really resolved, and if the film was hinting towards a resolution with them, then I managed to miss it. Perhaps it's a bit churlish to complain that a movie isn't predictable enough, but there is a certain level of narrative focus that one appreciates in film, or at least that I do. This, combined with an ending that seemed a bit pat, conspires to keep the film from the lofty heights of the great crime dramas, minor though the complaint may be.

There's also the question of just who the main character actually is. A Most Violent Year is as much a biopic as it is a crime drama, what with its laser-like focus on Abel Morales. But while Isaac plays the character very well, to the point of fascination, the film doesn't actually tell us a whole lot about him, where his principles of business come from, the ones he holds onto so tightly in opposition to his wife, family, and lawyers. Bits and pieces come our way, of previous business deals and aphorisms acquired from a lifetime of work, but unlike the better character-focused films I've seen recently like Locke or Birdman, the movie never really manages, despite the focus and the acting, to let us into the character's head in a comprehensive way.

Final thoughts:   Then again, Locke chose to do that by adding wholly unnecessary exposition rants wherein the main character abuses his dead father for his moral failings, contrasting himself to them overtly, so perhaps it's not such a bad thing that this film keeps the main character at arm's length. Indeed, rather than those films above, the one that this movie begs to be compared to is last year's The Drop, a similarly understated gangster piece with Tom Hardy and James Gandolfini, one which created mood and atmosphere and suspense by not having things explode into bloody violence. I liked The Drop a lot, and I find I liked A Most Violent Year just about as much, and for similar reasons, as both films showcased good actors playing characters whose motivations were at right angles to expectations, despite the gritty and violent world they were immersed in. And given that there are no shortage of movies out there which resolve everything in barrages of gunfire (not that I mind that), it's no bad thing to occasionally encounter a movie that has something else to say on the subject.

Final Score:  7.5/10

Next Time:  A long-awaited recap.

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