Jan 8, 2015

A Most Violent Year

This film by J.C. Chandor is all about the gray areas, something quite uncommon in American movies.  It is also most uncommon for American movies to have a Latino protagonist (played by an actual Latino actor who speaks Spanish perfectly), but that doesn't make a big deal about him being Latino (no piñatas, no mariachis, no extended family, just a guy who is integrating to the American Way Of Life). This may seem like a small thing, but it isn't. More movies like this need to be made.
The great Oscar Isaac plays Abel Morales (Abel, like the guy in the Bible, with a very moral last name), an ambitious businessman who owns a heating gas company in New York in the 80s.
He is expanding his business, buying some dilapidated docks in Brooklyn from Orthodox Jews that will give him a huge advantage over his competitors. Meanwhile, his drivers endure violent attacks: someone is stealing his trucks. The world of gas peddlers is apparently not very genteel. They try to screw one another by hook or by crook. Abel refuses to play dirty or even arm his drivers so they can defend themselves. He refuses to touch a gun. Meanwhile, the deed to the new property comes with a deadline. He needs to get the money to pay for it within 30 days, and the pressures mount.
Abel is married to Anna (Jessica Chastain), whose father, we learn, is a mafioso from Brooklyn.
Abel seems all rectitude, even with his camel hair coats and a junior pompadour a la John Gotti. Anna is more of a moll and more of a loose cannon. I was happy to see Chastain playing a vamp. She also wears a coat like a suit of armor, she chain smokes and is far more volatile than her husband. She keeps the books, and for all of Abel's efforts to remain squeaky clean, she seems to be cooking them. A district attorney (the ubiquitous David Oyelowo) has a bunch of claims of fraud against the Morales. So what gives? Are they kosher or not?
We think we are watching a film about the mafia, but we are watching a film about business, which is like the mafia but more legal. Ruthlessness is built into entrepreneurship; what Abel refuses to be is illegal. We root for him to get what he wants, if anything, because he is so convincing. Isaac plays him with a recognizable nod to Michael Corleone (that is, young Al Pacino), but my filmgoing companion was convinced that Isaac is also channelling Barack Obama. His deliberateness, his calm under pressure, and a certain hauteur convey someone with power; in his case, someone at the cusp of power who knows how it is supposed to walk and talk.
Julian (Elyes Gabel), one of Abel's drivers and a personal protegé, gets roughed up by hoods who steal his truck. Unlike Abel, Julian does not have a spine. He is the weak link in the story, even though he is pivotal to the plot. His storyline feels contrived. He is there to be the foil and opposite of Abel, but the stitching shows. He is the only character who does not have the sangfroid of the brisk business people around him. He freaks out, he sweats, he panics and he screws everything up. Nothing wrong with that, except that Gabel is not at the level of the rest of the otherwise perfect cast; he seems to belong in a more histrionic movie.
Why is it that American movies have such a hard time camouflaging the mechanics of plot and character? Leviathan, a Russian movie and a similar dark tale of ambition, presents characters as people, not as plot devices. A Most Violent Year is a riveting movie, but it falters when it gets schematic. Bradford Young's cinematography is yellowish, opaque, and in many scenes, too dark. It fails to emulate the dramatic chiaroscuro of the Godfather movies as well as the genuine grit of the New York movies of Sidney Lumet, both of which it seems to pay homage to. Bradford Young did a stellar job with Selma, so I think that this is a problem of style getting in the way.
Chandor takes his time to introduce Abel's world, and when the violence of the title comes, it comes in shocking spurts. This is very well done, and a chase scene, reminiscent of The French Connection, is truly ironic and suspenseful.
In the end, Abel learns that trying to keep clean as he rises in stature is going to be a lifelong struggle in a world where no one else seems to mind the dirt. All he can try to do, as he memorably puts it, is to take the path that is the most right.

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