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Saturday, January 3, 2015
J. C. Chandor | A Most Violent Year
by Douglas Messerli
J. C. Chandor (writer and director) A Most Violent Year / 2014
It seems strange to me that a number of critics have suggested that J. C. Chandor’s new film, tA Most Violent Year, was not truly very violent. In the movie I saw, there were two quite brutal attacks on the young truck driver, Julian (Elyes Gabel)—who appears to be modeling his life on the success of his boss, heating oil magnate Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac)—one instance in which he is seriously beaten and the other in which he ends up in a shooting battle amidst traffic on the 59th Street Bridge. At another point, Morales encounters an would-be intruder outside his home in the middle of the night, and, armed with a baseball bat chases him off into the woods; later a loaded gun, dropped evidently by the intruder, is discovered by Morales’ young daughter in bushes near the family doorway and innocently toys with it; her mother, Anna (Jessica Chastain) arms herself with the weapon (or one like it) for self-protection, putting a deer their car has accidently struck out of its misery. One of Morales’ salesmen is clonked over the head after presenting his spiel to a couple and, when he awakens is lying at the bottom of a garbage truck which unloads him, like a piece of refuse, at the local dump. After chasing down the villains behind yet another attempt to steal a truck full of heating oil, Morales grabs the surviving perpetrator and nearly pistol whips him to death before he breaks down, awakening from what seems to be a violently-induced trance.
The film’s title actually is a statistical reference to the year, 1981, in which the action of the film takes place, the most violent on record of homicides in New York City history. But the fact that at least three critics I read saw this as a basically non-violent movie, makes me wonder what film and our culture has done to us? Perhaps Chandor, in this brilliant socio-political exploration, as NPR reviewer Andrew Lapin argues, “plays with our expectations for violence,” but even that possibility implies that we expect violence to not only be present in our films but to be represented by a vast score of dead bodies after a series of shoot-outs. Let me reassure you, A Most Violent Year does indeed represent violence and, perhaps more importantly, creates a tension throughout in which you actually fear for the violence against the characters it presents.
If some viewers might have expected a story of an ambitious businessman married to a daughter of a mafia-leader to “deliver the goods,” so to speak, in the manner of Copolla’s Godfather movies, they’re missing the point and perhaps should visit the noisy block-buster playing next door. For Chandor’s hero, Morales, is not a good man whose immigrant culture has pushed him into being bad one, but is a young immigrant who insists, in his search for the American Dream, in being an honorable man. Unlike the vast majority of films being presented today, Abel Morales equates success with goodness, and, accordingly, adamantly insists on playing by the rules—even if they are not the same rules by which the others in his industry play.
The trouble, as Chandor apparently sees it, is that even if Morales’ behavior is exemplary, the “rules” themselves are corrupt; the forces of order and social structure are not what they appear to be. If, as I argued for Paul Thomas Anderson’s recent film Inherent Vice, its hero “Doc,” refusing to play by any of the rules, nonetheless remains a true innocent, in Chandor’s work the true innocent, Morales, is inherently evil—simply because he does not comprehend how the system has become corrupt. Morales, the upright, ambitious pursuer of the American noramlity at the center of this film, unknowingly destroys nearly everyone who cannot live up to his high ideals, and, accordingly, is forced to bow—or at least instinctively genuflect—to everything corrupt without really ever really knowing it, or at least admitting it to himself.
At the same moment of moving into a beautiful new home, the couple are suddenly faced with a criminal investigation by a District Attorney (David Oyelowo) who has been investigating an industry known for its illegal activities for years; Morales’ trucks come under attack from criminals who sell the contents to his competitors; and he is about to lose the support of his bank who had promised the loan. The man and his family come under such duress that only a heroic figure clothed in a heavy suit of moral armor, could possibly survive.
How such a paragon ever met the mafia leader’s daughter is never answered, and why these two joined forces is nearly inexplicable. Perhaps this saint in a tailored tan, camel-haired coat saw her as a possible cause for conversion to his values. Certainly he appears to be keeping her on a lease as close as the mafia chieftains kept their wives—despite the fact that Anna is perhaps the only who truly can save her husband. One smart cookie, she has kept a second set of books, skimming off money for years to “save for a rainy day.” It reminds me, ironically, of Glenn Miller’s wife Helen (June Alyson) in the biopic The Glenn Miller Story, who steals money out of Glenn’s pockets for the very same reason, offering it up later to help him establish a new orchestra of which he dreams. Anna likely had no such intentions, but, surprises herself after her husband has just about cut a bad deal with his fiercest and wealthiest competitor, offering up the absconded money as if it were a necessary sacrifice.
Morales may be an innocent fool but he’s no idiot; after railing against her evil ways, he grabs up the bundle and pays off his debts in the nick of time. But the couple has yet to deal with one more kink in their lovely ambitions: the young man, Jullian, whom Morales had tapped for a boot-strap rise from the next generation, doesn’t apparently have what it takes, and, pointing a gun to his head, pulls the trigger. He falls dead, a sound of blood rushing the wound in his head—until we realize (as the camera pulls away) that bullet has also ricocheted against one of the oil containers, allowing oil to slowly pour out its side; the sound represents a more important kind of liquid. As Morales moves to the body of his once beloved spiritual son, he first reaches up to stuff a handkerchief in the hole before bending to check out the corpse. Business comes first.
Even Lawrence, the D.A., is ready to compromise now that Morales has become a man of possibilities, recognizing that the heating-oil exec will soon become a man of social position possibly able to help him achieve the new rung in his career. We realize that critics of the American way like Graham Greene were, after all, right. It is this kind of innocence that gives evil a bad name.
Earlier in the film, Morales’ slightly shady, somewhat gangster-like lawyer, Andrew Walsh (nicely played by Albert Brooks) asks his employer what he’s really after, what does he really want? Morales does not know how to answer; isn’t it obvious, he gestures, implying that it’s apparent to anyone with just a little vision—he wants a better facility in which to store more oil, which, in turn, will bring in more money and grow the company. “No,” insists Walsh, “what do you really want?” Morales still cannot comprehend the question, cannot even imagine it. The very idea of something that transcends transactions is incomprehensible to him. Being a good guy, following the rules, we suddenly realize, is not a moral position for him as much as it is an appropriate method to get what he wants, a way to make the processes in which he is involved flow more smoothly. Satisfaction, ideals, moral values have little at all to do with it. Breaking the rules, presumably for him, simply gets in the way of doing business. And “doing business” is the only thing of which he can conceive. It hardly matters, in the end, what business he is in. Is it any wonder that the world surrounding Morales that Chandor and his talented cinematographer, Bradford Young, conjure up a frozen world lying just outside of civilization. Even if they become wealthy, the Morales’ symbolically will never find the “key” to the city, will never discover themselves truly involved in a communal life.
Los Angeles, January 3, 2015