Monday, 14 December 2015

Movie Review: '71/A Most Violent Year (2015)

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Jack O’Connell as a prisoner of war? Didn’t I already review this movie earlier this year? Well, thankfully, rather than dealing with yet another WWII drama, because for some reason people think that we still haven’t gotten enough of those yet, we’re dealing with a different skirmish this time round. Today’s film is set during the Irish civil war, otherwise known as ‘the Troubles’. Now, aside from little titbits I’ve picked up from videos made by fellow reviewer and friend of the blog Diamanda Hagan, I’m not too familiar with all the specifics about what went down. For the sake of summary, it involved Northern Ireland wanting to become its own territory separate from the United Kingdom, so war broke out between the Northern Irish nationalists and the Irish loyalists. Since we’ve gotten more than enough media concerning the U.S. civil war for independence, it’s already a welcome change of pace to see a film go after another historical conflict. But does it do it well? This is ’71.

The plot: In 1971, at the height of the Troubles, a platoon of British soldiers were deployed into Belfast to assist the loyalist police force. However, one soldier Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) is accidentally left behind by the rest of his team as they retreat from the front line. Stranded alone behind enemy lines, and not knowing whom he can trust, he limps his way around hoping to find help. Meanwhile, when knowledge of his present predicament becomes public, both the nationalists and the loyalists want to reach him before the other does.

Hook’s purpose to the overall story is two-fold, and unfortunately neither of them are as a character in his own right. One is to serve as the audience avatar, as his very long night stay in Belfast exposes him, and by extension us, further under the surface of the conflict. The other is as the walking MacGuffin as, for one reason or another, everyone involved in the civil war want to get their hands on him. This use of characters to fulfill purposes within the story, and not much else, extends to the supporting cast as well: In the grand scheme of the plot, they are just faceless playing pieces that get shifted around to create conflict. I specify ‘faceless’ because, if we’re being honest, that is true for pretty much any character in any work of fiction. It’s just that, usually, it’s better hidden than it is here.

This isn’t helped by the frankly confusing nature of the plot. Now, this is genuinely surprising considering the film is all about Hook and his attempts to get back to the barracks. Where this gets confusing is when you include the warring factions involved in the Troubles and which side the other characters belong to. Having sat through the film with my usual need to overanalyse and reading through the Wikipedia synopsis after the fact, I’m still confused about what side some of the characters are on, let alone keeping clear all the heel turns that occur during the running time. This isn’t helped by how some of the actors somewhat look alike, making it even worse when trying to keep character identities straight.

However, in the film’s defence, there is a point to the alliances being this muddled. The fuel to this film’s dramatic fire is the isolation and paranoia on Hook’s part. He is stuck in the middle of a domestic war zone that he admits that is not entirely knowledgeable about (like most audiences outside of the U.K.), without any of his fellow troops, and he isn’t 100% sure who he can trust. This film is amazingly good at portraying tension, through its gritty production values, cramped shaky-cam and unflinching sensibilities when it comes to violence. There is no compromise when it comes to depicting what people are willing to do, and who they’re willing to kill off, and it get legitimately unsettling with how much it shows. Then again, we’re talking about a rather brutal part of European history; it works for the setting to be this graphic.

As is the case with pretty much any film involving soldiers, we get commentary on the nature of warfare: How dirty it is, what it is like for people who caught in the crossfire, and the attitudes of those higher up in the military food chain. However, I can’t really say that it is all that interesting, nor is it even put into focus at any point in the story other than slap-bang at the end. I’ve mentioned before how repeating past ideas isn’t inherently bad; it’s more a matter of how they are used. Here, we get bits and pieces of how soldiers are seen as just “pieces of meat”, but with how randomly it’s inserted in, it feels like it was included just because it’s in every other war film.

All in all, this is a very well-made and grimy war thriller, never flinching at the sight of what both sides are willing to do to win, all carried out by terrific actors. Credit, again, is also due for delving into a different war story as inspiration for a film, and it definitely shows more than enough promise for more cinematic potential. However, between the chess piece plot progression and relatively weak characterization, it gets more than a little confusing at times to keep track of which character is on what side, save for our focal point character in the form of Hook. It’s better than In The Heart Of The Sea, as this has no such issue about feeling like it’s been censored at any point. However, because the character-specific writing here isn’t so good, Love & Mercy wins out by how well it portrayed Brian Wilson’s character.

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Organized crime flicks were probably among the easiest for audiences to latch onto when they first introduced. I say this because, when you really think about it, they’re only a slight exaggeration of regular business dealings in the first place. The further up the chain of command you get for a given enterprise, the more cutthroat the tactics and goals get. If you’re just a small upstart shop that sells fresh coffee, the only thing on your mind is being able to compete with the legions of Starbucks in the same area. If you’re Starbucks, your goal is to not only to compete with competitors but to also drive them out of business if possible. Really, the only difference between the two is that Starbucks isn’t likely to send hired goons to rough up the opposition. Well, maybe Apple does that, but it hasn’t been made “officially” known yet. At any rate, shift that paradigm to something that is a little more essential than your daily brew or the newest iPhone; like, say, heating oil for homes during a particularly cold winter in New York City. With this backdrop, we have today’s crime drama: This is A Most Violent Year.

The plot: Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is the owner of a small oil company that he is desperately trying to expand. Unfortunately, one or more of his competitors keeps hijacking his oil trucks, and he is also under investigation Assistant DA Lawrence (David Oyelowo) for numerous infringements. When one of his drivers Julian (Elyes Gabel) gets severely beaten during a hijacking, Abel is coaxed by his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) to be more aggressive in his practices. However, with all of this plus an upcoming payment for a larger storage facility in the wings, Abel might just break before he even gets that far.

Not too long after my last encounter with him, Isaac once again impresses as Abel, showing off business-savvy cool as well as pressurized reluctance in his work. I could watch him explain the finer points of oil selling all day, he portrays it so well. Chastain works as a great counterpoint to him, showing off an equal capacity for intimidation but also the ability to do things that her husband may not be able to. If every mob wife was like this, I’d be watching Mob Wives a lot more often. Oyelowo gives a certain dignity to his role, but unfortunately doesn’t hold up as well to those around him. Then again, this is probably because I’ve seen him do far better work earlier in the year. Albert Brooks complements Isaac very well as his confidante and lawyer Andrew Walsh, and Gabel is amazing as the man who gets stuck in the middle of everyone else’s dealings and ultimately suffers the most as a result.

On the majority of posters for this film, New York City gets top billing alongside Isaac and Chastain; that name is there for good reason. Much like any other filmmaker worth his salt, J.C. Chandor imbues the setting with enough life and energy to make it count as its own character. Every other gangster film portrays whatever criminal hub the events take place in as being property, usually being contested over by two or more larger families. By comparison, this takes a refreshingly different approach and instead shows it as being contested over by several individuals. This helps gives a greater sense that everyone is out for themselves and can only truly trust themselves, not to mention justifying Abel’s stresses about succeeding in his business. Through all this, the crime scene becomes something akin to a gladiatorial arena: One-on-one battles where no punches get pulled. Rather than the sophisticated mobsters that we usually get in New York-based crime stories, the film holds no qualms about depicting these people as the leeches they are, Abel included. The film’s title isn’t an indicator of any real physical violence; really, only one part of the film shows anything all that bloody. Instead, it describes the setting in a different fashion: An extremely competitive collection of people who are more than willing to take bites out of each other as well as their food supplies, if it means that they can stay afloat.

It also shows criminal activity, at least within the confines of the oil business, as being an enterprise for only the most efficient persons. In order to thrive, or even to keep their heads above water, less-than-favourable actions have to be taken, usually in the form of consistent symbiotic loans between parties. Abel, as we clearly see throughout the film’s running time, isn’t the most capable ‘legitimate businessman’ in the game. When he has to put the pistol to a head, he hesitates on the trigger; he’s able to put on a decent front to convince people, but not always able to follow through. To this end, it’s Anna who has to pick up the slack, ultimately showing that it’s her who is the real brains behind the operation. Between the two of them, this serves as a remarkable character study about a verging-on-gangster who is confronted with the kind of actions he will have to take in order to make it against his competitors. If it weren’t for the support of those around him and, in one instance, blind luck, Abel wouldn’t have even been able to make it long enough to learn that lesson.

All in all, this is an impressively written character piece that serves as a invigoratingly different take on the crime drama than we’ve seen elsewhere this year. The acting is excellent, the characterization is solid, the soundtrack works splendidly, and the cinematography frames every shot remarkably well. Yet another notch in Oscar Isaac’s belt, and I can only hope that his performance in the upcoming Star Wars movie is even half as good as this is. Dear God, am I actually looking forward to that overhyped piece of crud now? Even more proof how great this film is. It’s better than Me And Earl And The Dying Girl as, while not as technically adventurous, is more complex in terms of its characters. However, as an experience based on mood, The Martian left me on a far more fulfilled note, as cheesy as it was.

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