January 31, 2015

A Most Violent Year (2014)

It is not often that I find a film that seems to exist for the sole purpose of pleasing me. I have been blessed on very few occasions to sit down at a movie theater and watch as a studio spends millions of dollars and, presumably, lots of research and development into mind reading technology, displaying a motion picture tailor made for my brain. A Most Violent Year is A24's (the distributing studio) love note to me ... and I can only thank them with an $8.50 matinee fee, a DVD sale and a glowing review.

Now, A Most Violent Year, for many, may be the most disappointing film of the century. As Hollywood is want to do, they are selling this fucker hard as about forty different things. The main selling point seems to be that the movie is basically the second coming of Goodfellas and, like its title suggests, will be the most ultraviolet crime thriller of all time. So yeah, if you're going in expecting that, you might be pretty bored or pissed off.

But if you've got an open mind, plus a working knowledge of Hollywood's bullshit, you may be treated to a genre busting morality tale that rivals ... and yes, I am about to say this ... the intellectual power of The Godfather

The amazing aspect of A Most Violent Year is it's attempt to bring a new voice to the 'gangster' genre. Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, for better and worse, have stamped the crime genre with their footprint and most movies try (and mostly fail) to duplicate those director's work of genius. Don't get me wrong, some have matched or maneuvered around the created tropes to create genuinely compelling works of art (Mike Newell's Donnie Brasco comes to mind) but many stick to the formula.

A Most Violent Year's core strength is subtly deconstructing the gangster genre by posing what could be, in superhero genre terms, an origin story ... hell maybe even a Christ figure story ... of a man walking the line between civilian and mobster. But the film has only shadows of 'gangster' to it. In a sense, this is blue collar near-mobality (trademark to me please). The movie's main character, Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is an on-the-rise oil mogul. But don't get it twisted: there aren't fancy boardrooms and insane cars. Abel is fairly wealthy ... but like the film's other approaches to things such as violence and corporate intrigue ... it is a drab wealth. It is probably a realistic wealth.


Abel's desired location for his empire is not flashy or fancy. It is crude and grey. It is not something you desire to own unless you desire to work in that field. Most gangster movies try to show the style and excess of success. And yes, some people live that lifestyle ... but for most in the real world, money making operations aren't fancy, they're dirty and non-luxurious. 

But even the 'flashy' components Abel surrounds himself with like a drab, ugly mansion and a modest looking Mercedes, feel more 'real'. The director J.C. Candor and his art direction team take the pomp and circumstance and the often exaggerated mythic quality of the gangster flick out of this film.

But here I am, talking about Abel as a 'gangster' when he is anything but. In fact, the film has less plot and more examination to it, the examination being a very David Mamet-like approach to a man's conscious when surrounded by gangsters: what lines will he cross and what won't he cross. Like the film itself, Abel is trying to defy the expectations placed on him by his ethnic background, fancy hair and dress, the business he works in and the connections to gangsters he inherited (his wife is the daughter of a now-jailed, ambiguously labeled gangster, though that is never made explicitly clear). Abel is our hero but he is almost a Shakespearean character from one of his tragedies. His tragic flaw is his conscious and the entire film relies on the testing of that conscious, and the good and bad side of actually having one ... and yes, there can be a negative aspect to having a conscious ...

But unlike other films of its ilk, the conscious challenges are not like 'will he start to kill' or something similar. It is 'how can I impress the loan manager at the bank that I am a guy you can trust' or 'can I loan cash from person A or person B when either A and B is really against me'. It is both mundane and revolutionary.

Oscar Isaac is getting lots of praise but where I have heard complaints is that his character is almost like a walking metaphor and not real flesh and blood. And, partially, I can agree. Like any good Mamet play, Abel is more then just flesh and blood. He is kind of the personification of the inner struggle and sometimes his psychological plight takes over the actual realism of his character. But that isn't exactly a drawback for me ... because the film is, in the end, a morality tale, a metaphysical tragedy wrapped in a genre breaking film.

Isaac is pretty incredible to watch and as his morality goes from noble to unnerving to nearly deadly, the audience debates the values one can have in life. Abel seems unable to accept ANY compromises but sometimes, or at least we think, compromises have to be made. And while people complain about his, perhaps, overwritten part ... the actor sells it. Isaac is a star waiting to happen.

The rest of the cast is phenomenal as well. Jessica Chastain plays Abel's wife, an Armani wearing ticking time bomb who threatens to unravel Abel's stability all while being his most dedicated supporter. Albert Brooks continues to play against type as a shady lawyer while actors like Elyes Gabel, David Oyelowo and Alessandro Nivola play small, but charismatic, roles.

The best actor in the whole thing though is New York City. Taking place in 1981, flawlessly recreated by the design team and a marvelous cinematographer in Bradford Young, New York is simultaneously beautiful and grimy. Many have compared it to Sidney Lumet ... I tend to agree as many of the on location shooting reminded me of some of the dirtiest sections of Serpico.

A marvelous character study with amazing acting and production, the film was made just for me but it may also be made for you too.

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