I never would have played the DVD screener if I had not seen the filmmakers on Charlie Rose, been intrigued by them, and then read rave reviews in my three daily newspapers of choice (New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times.) So I slipped the video into my small player and spent two hours sitting on the edge of my bed as I watched one of the most original movies of the year unfold in a most interesting, even exciting tableau. It is called A MOST VIOLENT YEAR and it stars two supremely talented players, Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaacs. She is a recognized star by now, and he is an almost-unknown actor who made a sight impression on me in a rather disappointing musical film, "Inside Llewyn Davis." (That's where he plays a sort of guitar-toting Bob Dylan character wandering the Village in the Sixties trying to find himself.) I didn't even recognize him in this thriller, set in 1981 in New York, the year considered the most dangerous and debilitating in the history of the city.
If I tell you that it's a searing family/crime drama about the heating-oil business in the city, you'll tune me out instantly. Don't. You will miss a performance by an actor, Isaacs, who demonstrates a font of fury, the bursting-forth of the new Al Pacino or DeNiro. (And you should remember that I'm the guy who discovered Pacino off-Broadway and gave him his Tony Award-winning Broadway performance in "Does A Tiger Wear a Necktie?" )
It seems this brilliant young 41-year old director, J.C Chandor, lived near this heating oil terminal in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and observed the shady goings-on in its yard. And he created a world built around a Latino character named Abel Morales, who is running a small but growing heating oil-delivery company with several trucks to his name. The moment you see Abel wearing his camel's hair coat like an Emperor's wrap, issuing pseudo-suave pronouncements, you know he is an ambitious, insecure, driven guy possibly riding for a fall. What he also does have is a wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), who is the tough daughter of a small-time hoodlum father who once owned the business. Abel's trucks are being hijacked by an unknown rival and he is under investigation for white-collar tax fraud by an aggressive young district attorney (played by David Oyelowo, who went on to play Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma.) The skillful Albert Brooks plays his worrisome lawyer, a nifty cameo .His wife wants him to arm his drivers to combat the thugs doing the hijacking; he is resistant to starting an illegal defense which can (and does) lead to unforeseen consequences. That's the crux of the plot....but gives no indication of the dark, dramatic black-and-white panorama which unfolds. Someone said, "it's all shadows and blight." Like I pontificated, it's the most original screenplay of this year. There's a ticking clock in here, since our man has to find a million-and-a-half dollars in 30 days to save his investment/deposit in buying this Bayside oil depot. (There is a great opening scene where he signs with the Hasidic owner of the property.) I grew up in this general area of Brooklyn albeit long before this signature '81 year and remember how sleazy, tawdry, a godforsaken place it was.
Chandor got my attention as a writer-director some years ago with his first film, Margin Call, a smart Wall Street thriller made on a non-existent budget, followed by a Robert Redford acting stint where he hardly spoke while on a sailboat in the Indian ocean. Several reviewers have compared Chandor's work here to that of Sidney Lumet in "Dog Day Afternoon" and "Prince of the City"".....but I kind of think it is an anti-Godfather Godfather. Yes, it's a genre gangster movie and even has two car chases, but somehow it comes across as being so original that I couldn't see where it was headed 'til it got there. The film opens with Chastain sitting at a dressing table wearing ljngerie and combing her hair....shades of those '70s films. Her big moment comes when they are driving in the country and he hits a deer. Getting out of the car, he doesn't know what to do but pick up a tire iron..and then Jessica blows us, the audience, away - and also the injured deer - with a single shot from her hidden pistol. Cojones? Yes, in this smaller role, she is a Lady Macbeth-like force of nature. There's a scene where all of the oily heating oil owners sit around a table in a war council which could have come right out of Don Corleone's compound. (Remember how the Mafia used to split up their territories at meetings like this?) Here they all deny the hijacking but we know they lie.
The fim picks up a frightening momentum when one of his drivers (Eyles Gabel), unknown to him, arms himself and then shoots a hijacker. At the scene, Abel spots s suspect and chases him down through the city, finally learning who is steailing and with whom is he is dealing. He uses this knowledge to leverage the final portion of the huge sum he needs. I had left New York for the sunny fields of California long before the time of this film, but I do remember the subway cars covered with artistic graffiti, the burned-out tenements of the Bronx, the subway killer Bernie Goetz, the air of 'criminality' which hung over the city that year. The cinematographer Bradford Young (also "Selma") must share much of the credit for the amazing 'look' of the movie....often like a decadent painting. I looked up the name of the composer, Alex Ebert, who contributed the edgy score.
So we have the age-old dilemna of a somewhat-honest man having to cope with the forces of darkness which are threatening to overwhelm him and his way of life unless...he picks up the cudgel and retaliates. Or does he? The New York Times put it thusly: "The movie entwines two old sayings, Behind every great man there is a great woman, and Behind every great fortune there is a great crime." Abel is a fascinating complex man whom we watch with anxiety and excitement as he copes with these forces of nature, though they are man-made. Yes, there is a little of the younger Pacino here; Abel is really trying to do the right thing....but just when he thought he was out free, they pull him back in. Isaacs' has soulful eyes, a ready smile which hides his anguish, a confident façade which occasionally drops. No one has mentioned this performance at award time but I will....he deserved much more recognition for this subtle, sweet, savage portrayal. The ambiguity of it all intrigues me...is he an honest man trying to live respectfully amidst madness or is he a skilled hustler conning the world, including his wife? My guess: a little of both. Which is why it is a such a sensational movie.
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