Monday, 14 December 2015

A Most Violent Year (2015) - Movie Review
Organised 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 cut-throat 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.

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 pressurised 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 characterisation 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 over-hyped piece of crud now? Even more proof how great this film is.

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