Wednesday, February 4, 2015

In Theaters: A MOST VIOLENT YEAR (2014)

(US/United Arab Emirates - 2014)

Written and directed by J.C. Chandor. Cast: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Albert Brooks, Alessandro Nivola, Elyes Gabel, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Peter Gerety, Christopher Abbott, Ashley Williams, Jerry Adler, Elizabeth Marvel, David Margulies, Glenn Fleshler, John Procaccino, Robert Clohessy, Annie Funke. (R, 125 mins)

If you were to walk into J.C. Chandor's A MOST VIOLENT YEAR blind, knowing nothing about it, you might very well think it's a lost Sidney Lumet "gritty NYC" movie that's been on the shelf since 1981. In the course of just three films since 2011--he previously wrote and directed the mesmerizing financial meltdown chronicle MARGIN CALL and the Robert Redford lost-at-sea survivalist drama ALL IS LOST--Chandor has established himself as arguably the most versatile young talent in American filmmaking. With A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, Chandor wears his love of Lumet and a bygone era of NYC filmmaking on his sleeve. Set in the winter of 1981 during a record wave of violent crime, A MOST VIOLENT YEAR crackles with the kind of energy and intensity you just don't see much of these days. This is a movie for people who like big-city corruption dramas of the 1970s and early 1980s. Chandor's attention to detail is sharp and precise, and he lets the atmosphere, characterization, and performances convey the era rather than resorting to the easy, go-to tropes of garish clothing or the popular music of the period, which usually means a scene in a disco where Blondie's "Heart of Glass" is playing, or making the whole film play like the coked-up paranoia section of GOODFELLAS, which only works if you're AMERICAN HUSTLE. The problem with many of today's films that are set in the 1970s and 1980s is that they overdo the easy signifiers like hairstyles, clothing, and music. Chandor doesn't even break out those crutches, and instead approaches A MOST WANTED YEAR from a you-are-there 1981 perspective devoid of any sense of nostalgia. It's as if he's possessed by the spirit of the late, legendary Lumet.

In a performance that channels the best of the youthful Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, Oscar Isaac (INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS) is Abel Morales, the president of the relatively small-time Standard Heating Oil. Abel has several rivals throughout the Five Boroughs, and they're all jockeying for better positions in the local market. Abel and his business partner/wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) have dumped their life savings into a deposit on a riverfront land purchase from Hasidic businessman Josef (Jerry Adler), a fuel and oil storage facility that will give Abel leverage in the local competition. All he needs to do is come up with $1.5 million in 30 days and the land is his. Otherwise, Josef keeps the deposit and sells the property to a competitor. Abel is stressed but confident. He runs a clean business, prides himself on Standard's presentation and dedication to customer service, and has a great relationship with his bank. Of course, everything starts falling apart. For the last year, Abel's trucks have been occasionally hijacked on their routes, the drivers assaulted and the oil sold to the competition. These occurrences have been on an alarming increase, the latest one resulting in dedicated driver Julian (Elyes Gabel) getting his face smashed and his jaw broken. Abel and his lawyer Andrew Walsh (an almost unrecognizable Albert Brooks) go to District Attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo) to address the problem, only to be told that the city's been riddled with crime for over a year and hijacked heating oil trucks aren't a priority. And on top of that, Lawrence is launching an investigation into corruption among the city's heating oil providers, with a particular emphasis on Standard. And when the hijackings continue, Walsh and Anna, behind Abel's back, make an agreement with Teamsters rep O'Leary (Peter Gerety) to supply the drivers with guns accompanied by permits that range from sketchy to completely forged.

As all of these issues crash in on the beleaguered Abel, he keeps telling himself that everything will be OK because he runs an honest business, but he's deluding himself. In the revisionist bio he's imagined for himself, he thinks he's built the business from the ground up, when in fact, he bought it cheap from his low-level mobster father-in-law, with Anna cooking the books in a subtle enough way that it's taken the D.A.'s office ten years to catch on to it. An immigrant, Abel believes in the American dream so much that he's willing to convince himself that he's above the corruption that infests his chosen industry. In a very intense, controlled, and pitch-perfect performance, Isaac vanishes into his character the way a young Pacino and De Niro would. His Abel Morales is, at his core, a fundamentally good man who thinks that as long as he doesn't see something illegal happening, everything's going to be OK. He's too smart to not know about Anna's machinations, whether she's falsifying tax records or skimming off the top. The one major flaw in Chandor's script is the sometimes one-dimensional presentation of Anna, though it's not the fault of Chastain. She's a loving wife and, in a rarity for this type of film, an equal partner, but she's still too often cartoonishly bitchy and ruthless, saddled with heavy-handed, melodramatic ways of showing that she's the decisive ballbuster while Abel needs to man up and get with the program, such as the scene where they're driving home from dinner and hit a deer. Opting to put the poor creature out of its misery, Abel hesitantly dithers with a tire iron, while Anna pulls out a gun and shoots it in the head.

Elsewhere, Chandor offers two marvelous, pulse-pounding chase sequences--one during a shootout on the 59th Street Bridge in heavy traffic, the other a long, stunning FRENCH CONNECTION homage when Abel hears a truck hijacking on the radio and realizes he's right in the area where it's taking place. At the end, after a bitingly cynical dialogue exchange between Abel and Lawrence that illustrates just how intertwined politics and business really are, A MOST VIOLENT YEAR is still just Lumet-worship first and foremost (with some bonus affection for guys like William Friedkin and Alan J. Pakula). But it's the closest thing to a new Sidney Lumet film that you're ever going to get, and I imagine that's the best praise one can bestow upon it. Dialogue-heavy and character-driven, set in a world that exists in a perpetual shade of moral and ethical gray, A MOST VIOLENT YEAR is the kind of film that should've been an Oscar darling, but still-not-ready-for-prime-time distributor A24 Films only gave it a minimal, NYC/L.A. release on December 31, 2014. While that wasn't a fatal mistake, A24 completely fell asleep on the job when they were too late getting screeners out to Academy members to qualify it for awards consideration. As a result, what was pegged as a surefire Oscar candidate ended up with exactly zero nominations, all but killing its awards-season momentum and any moviegoer interest with the film finally opening nationwide at the end of January. Nevertheless, its day will come, as it's the work of a strong, confident filmmaker who's only starting to hit the peak of his powers. There's going to be some great films from J.C. Chandor in the coming years.

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