Tuesday, February 3, 2015

A Most Violent Year Movie Review

Abel Morales is a Latin American immigrant in New York City in 1981. He owns and operates his own heating oil business amid a social and business landscape that is in decay. Corruption in his industry is rampant to the point that the Assistant D.A. (David Oyelowo) is lumping him in with all oil companies in an investigation. The city itself is witnessing its most violent time ever. The radio news is constantly recounting the previous day’s tally of violent crimes, a heavy load weighing the city down along with the cold wintry mood set by director J.C. Chandor and his production designer John Goldsmith and cinematographer Bradford Young.

Abel is a suave and savvy entrepreneur, and allegedly an honest one. He insists (perhaps a little too often) that he refuses to go down the rabbit hole of engaging in illegal practices that could give him a competitive edge but will ultimately undermine everything he’s worked for. As an immigrant, he embodies the American dream. He’s hardly recognizable as Hispanic, bearing only the faint hint of a long-forgotten accent, but his Spanish language ability is still there when he needs to speak earnestly with the wife of an employee in trouble. He says twice at the insinuation of malfeasance that he follows “standard industry practices.” What does he mean by that? If the standard is corruption, rigging scales, and cooking the books, then is he not actually running the perfectly honest business he claims? I think Chandor leaves it purposely ambiguous. At the very least, he’s more honest than his competitors and dead-set on beating them on better service and better tactics.

Oscar Isaac is simply unreal as Abel. I thought he was very good last year in Inside Llewyn Davis. To watch him as Abel and think about Llewyn is to experience this odd feeling where you’re imaging the same man inhabit two characters that are so different. It’s not just that he delivers his lines perfectly , always with clear articulation ad control befitting the measured character of Abel, maintaining composure even in the face of some severely frustrating events, but that he so completely transforms into Abel. You can’t see anything of Llewyn Davis here except a slight physical resemblance. And very slight at that because Isaac physically carries himself as a different man. Abel walks tall and proud whereas Llewyn slumped and shuffled.

Abels’ business is being threatened by the rise in city violence which directly affects him by means of regular hijackings of his delivery trucks. The perpetrators beat the drivers and then make off with the oil. Abel isn’t sure if his competitors are directly hiring these thugs, but at the very least someone is buying the stolen supply. The ramifications run deep as the Teamsters Union wants to arm his drivers to protect themselves, risking escalating violence and further criminal investigation. The timing is critical also because Abel has just put a significant amount of personal savings down on a piece of property that will help grow his business, but the bank might balk at finalizing the loan.

This makes Abel a man who’s up against a wall. Men in his position in movies have traditionally lashed out or resorted to means they previously rejected, but he is steadfast in his resolve to remain pure self-made man. The only question is to what extent he deludes himself about his purity. Surely he’s on a moral high ground when compared to his competitors. And he’s adamant that he doesn’t’ want to use violence to stop the violence that’s been visited upon him. His wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) wants him to man up and protect his business, his investment, and his family. There are hints that she could call on her father and brothers (the presumption being mob connections) to help out. She’s the tough soldier in the family, playing the meek role of wife, mother, and company bookkeeper, but she has more spitfire and rage while Able shames others with his eyes and soft-spoken words.

Chandor continues to truly impress with the way he reinvents himself with each movie. His debut, Margin Call, was a measured study of the eve of the financial collapse. There was no trumped up drama, but just talk and facts out of which he spun incredible tension. With All Is Lost he moved from the interiors of a Manhattan office building to the open ocean and a single man surviving a shipwreck. Now he goes three and a half decades into the past to the dirty and murderous New York that existed before the streets were cleaned up. This is a cold city and not just because of its winter setting. Everything in the period details feels cold. It’s mostly overcast or the sunshine is dull. Graffiti covers every surface of a subway car. Chandor and Goldsmith create an atmosphere of cruelty and harshness. Alex Ebert’s synthesizer heavy score adds to that ambience intoning muted minor keys and haunting melodies.

If I have any reservations about the movie it’s that I would have liked a bit more development of how Abel’s adherence to his philosophy and business practice affects his employees, specifically how he keeps any in spite of their victimization at the hands of thugs just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. One character is beaten badly when his truck is hijacked at the beginning of the family. Abel coaxes him back into the truck where he winds up making a dangerous decision that has terrible repercussions. I didn’t find the conclusion to his arc entirely convincing, but recognized and accepted the symbolism with regard to Abel. But what of the other drivers who must be scared? What about a young and eager salesman who takes a beating on the job? His story is dropped. I think there’s something worth exploring from a character perspective in terms of how Abel is convincing and charismatic enough to get people to return. But these are ultimately minor criticisms that only occurred to me upon reflection, the movie having so completely enveloped and transported me while I was caught in its hypnotic gaze.

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