Saturday, April 11, 2020

Movie Reviews: A Most Violent Year

A Most Violent Year
directed by J.C. Chandor
This is an older film that for some reason I had never watched. Thanks to our friends in Wuhan and our feckless President, between working from home and "sheltering in place", I have oodles more free time. So I checked out this film because it was on sale. I'm glad I did.

Although people who are sensitive to depictions of mayhem might worry that the film's title describes the theme and events I would disagree. There is some violence and threat of same but that's not the film's focus. 

This is a character drama that happens to be set in a time and place (1981 New York) when violence, both organized and street, occurred more frequently. But the film's question is not whether the protagonist can use violence more effectively than his enemies. This would of course be the sole point were this film to feature other action hero actors. This film's protagonist isn't going to swear holy, righteous, bloody vengeance over the body or bodies of his wife, brother, sister, children, mother, father, grandparents, teacher, girlfriend, goldfish or dog. He won't undertake a rigorous and sadistic training program and finally show up at Big Bad's Evil Central Headquarters to deliver some much needed viewer catharsis by killing everyone in sight before delivering a prolonged painful death to the Big Bad.

This last deed is usually accompanied by a pithy one liner like "See you in Hell!" or "Now you know who I am." or my favorite, "You should have killed ALL the (insert family name)!!" This is not that kind of movie.

Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is a rising young businessman. He owns a NYC based home heating oil company that's been expanding rapidly. Abel doesn't always pay attention to informal "territories" claimed by competitors. 

Abel is an immigrant with a fierce belief in the American dream. 

Having struggled and won against the odds Abel has raised enough money to purchase a fuel oil terminal on the East River. This terminal will allow him to cut his import costs by eliminating the middlemen, allow him to sell more oil when the price is high, and place his company on a different level than his competitors, some of whom resent the brash young newbie. 

Abel has put up almost all of his available cash for a 40% down payment to the terminal's owners, a group of Hasidic Jews led by the avuncular Joseph Mendellsohn (Jerry Adler). Although he likes Abel Joseph is also a businessman. If Abel can't arrange financing for the 60% ($1.5 million) balance in 30 days, Joseph will keep the down payment and sell the terminal to one of Abel's competitors.

So that's pressure. Initially that's not a worry for Abel. Abel has a good relationship with his banker. Abel learns that he has three problems, all of which seem to be getting worse. 

The first is that someone is hijacking his trucks. This is costing him thousands, really hundreds of thousands of dollars. And it's not a random thing. His trucks are being hijacked across NYC like clockwork.

If this keeps up Abel won't have the cash flow to justify the bank's loan. Worse, some of his employees are getting scared of driving. Being beaten and having guns thrust in your face tends to do that. The Teamsters Union Rep (Peter Gerety) strongly suggests that Abel arrange for his drivers to carry guns. If not then the union might consider a work slow down/strike. Abel's against violence. Abel thinks guns just bring trouble.

Abel's second problem is that he learns from his lawyer (Albert Brooks) that the ambitious local assistant DA (David Oyelowo) has been investigating the industry and specifically Abel's company for civil and even criminal misbehavior: fraudulent books, tax evasion, cartel price fixing, illegal hiring, etc. 

The lawyer doesn't think it's too bad but the otherwise honest Abel knows that if the DA pulls on a thread long enough he'll find some things. Abel likes to say that he "always does the most right thing." An indictment or civil suit would damage Abel's reputation and prevent closing on the terminal. This would destroy his business.

Abel's third problem and one which intersects with and is larger than the other two is that his busty, hotheaded, and protective wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) is losing faith in Abel's leadership. 

The company was originally started by Anna's imprisoned father. Anna is the daughter and brother of a mobster. 

Anna is FAR more confrontational than Abel. While Abel would rather appeal to people's rational nature and courage, Anna sees no issue with direct physical action. In fact she prefers it. 

Anna thinks that if Abel can't protect her and their daughters then Abel is no man. So Anna thinks she'll have to do the protecting, either on her own or with the help of her relatives. Anna handles all the books for the company. Anna is equally ready to throw down with her husband or any of their enemies, known or unknown. 

Chastain and Isaac were really good together. They gave strong performances. Their relationship depicted how men and women both require and shape the "femininity" and "masculinity" that each gender seeks from the other. 

Abel does not like being second guessed by Anna but on the other hand it's Anna who delays or misdirects police and helps him hide company ledgers that the DA really doesn't need to see. Anna may scorn Abel's inability to put a wounded animal out of its misery but it's Abel who grabs a baseball bat to handle a suspicious intruder at the family home.

Isaac has a passing resemblance to Al Pacino. And the clothing styles and cinematography certainly put one in mind of The Godfather. Many conversations take place in dark rooms. Key events are unexplained. But again, this is not a very violent film and arguably isn't even a crime film. It's about a man who wants to do the right thing, most of the time. Abel eschews violence. The viewer can decide if that's an honest moral objection or simply because Abel thinks violence is bad for business. Abel will tell a killer to his face that he's lying. Abel is an intense man with purpose.

This quiet film had a long running time but it was justified. Peter Forente (Alessandro Nivola) is an affably evil mobster and heating oil competitor who may or may not be aligned with Abel's interests.
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