Saturday, February 14, 2015

A Most Violent Year

Standard Industry Practices (Raising Abel)
"You'll Never Do Anything Harder Than Looking Someone in the Eye and Telling Them the Truth." (And It's Hard to be a Saint in the City)

J.C. Chandor has made three films now, each one different in scope and breadth, but each challenging as to subject matter and presentation. He does not go the easy way—if any way, he goes the opposite of what might be expected from a film, genre-shaped or no. His first, Margin Call, dared to make drama out of the economic crisis, which it did as if it was the easiest thing in the world (it isn't, ask Oliver Stone) creating a boardroom drama as if it was a high-rise Game of Thrones. His second film, All is Lost, had one star, one actor—Robert Redford—and its survival-at-sea story was told with images and virtually no dialogue that systematically robbed its lone sailor of everything, including hope.

Now, it's back to business, as Chandor takes a look at the oil industry circa 1981 in New York, where the city is divided into turfs of heating oil customers that are treated like fiefdoms of the various oil companies, jealously protected and vehemently guarded—and where there's oil, there's usually fire.

A movie about an oil dealership. Sounds exciting, right? But Chandor always has an interesting spin on the most mundane of ordinary situations, be it crunching numbers, burying a beloved pet, or patching a hole in the side of a boat. His protagonist in A Most Violent Year is Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac, as far afield from his dour folkie of the Coen Brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis), the latino head of the Standard Heating Oil Company. Abel's as hands-on as they come, knowing the names of all his employees, salesmen, truck-drivers. He's worked his way up from hauling tankers to running the company; he knows every step of the way and mentors and coaches his workers based on his own singular success story moving up the ladder. 
Now, he stands on the cusp of his biggest transaction—buying a defunct distribution center from Jewish garment workers so that he can take deliveries right off the Hudson River, without depending on trucking the fuel in. He has 30 days to close on the property, and has put up a considerable deposit, and if he can't come up with the rest of the cash the sellers will keep the deposit and entertain the competing offer of a rival company. The stakes are high and Abel could lose everything.
Of course, there are complications: Standard Oil is becoming a player in the city and the other oil companies are getting aggressive: his trucks are being hijacked, his drivers beat up and hospitalized, the tankers drained to the tune of $80,000 a tank; men with guns are casing his new upstate house; New York's assistant DA (David Oyelowo—appearing twice in one week here!) is investigating his company for corruption—probably because Standard is the least established and less contributing to political campaigns. Throughout that 30 day option window, the stakes will get higher and the violence will increase.
Jessica Chastain gives David Oyelowo an unfortunate gesture.
At home, he's getting pressure, too.  His wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain) is the daughter of a Mafia family—if Abel shows weakness on any front, Anna merely has to call her brother and father and offers will not be refused. For Abel, that's an easy offer not to take. He's working the business his way, on his own path, negotiating the shoals the best he knows how. And he won't stoop to using the same tactics that are being used against him. So, he's constantly at war—with his competitors, with the teamsters, with the government, with his wife—everyone who is considering the easier path, the simpler path, the one with no conscience and the least resistance.
Except by Abel, that is. Very early on, the visual of Abel in expensive suits, a camel-hair coat and the steady gaze with hooded eyes reminds of Al Pacino's Michael Corleone from the Godfather series. But, this is completely different. Michael was a corrupting influence in a normal world, even in the corrupt world of the Mafia. In Abel's world, the corruption is already in place and he's attempting to resist and change by example. And Chandor's philosophy is counter to Coppola's (and Marlon Brando's) who saw the Mafia as a metaphor for Big Business. Chandor sees Big Business using the same tactics as the Mafia—being interchangeable with them with turf wars, shakedowns, intimidations and criminal activity being condoned and encouraged for market share and territory. There is the constant temptation (especially when deadlines are looming, the banks aren't co-operating, and violence is escalating) of fighting fire-power with fire-power, of doing wrong until you get caught, that looms in front of Abel.
A Most Violent Year is very familiar, but in a different context.  It is an anti-Godfather, where the world is no less cynical, no less hard or even criminal, but there is one man who, though surrounded by and acknowledging all of that, still finds a better path, walks it, talks it, and will not be deterred. It's a movie about something rather rare in modern drama: a hero.

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