Friday, February 13, 2015

Oscars 2014: A Most Violent Year

Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain 
as Abel and Anna Morales
A Most Violent Year (U.S., 2014) directed by J.C. Chandor, 125 minutes

I wanted to mention some of the films that might have been overlooked by the Oscars. I think this is one of them. I wanted to explore why that might be so.

If, as a 2012 survey indicates, the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science are mostly white (94%) and mostly male (77%) and the median age of members is 62 with only 14% under the age 50 - is it any wonder that actors like Benedict Cumberbatch, Eddie Redmayne, Bradley Cooper and comedic figures like Steve Carrell and Michael Keaton (in non-comedic roles) get nods from the Academy but actors such as Isaac and his co-star David Oyelowo (who also starred as MLK in the phenomenal Selma) do not? Just hear me out ... but first a little bit about the film.

Set in 1981 New York City, Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac last seen in Inside Llewyn Davis) is the proprietor of Standard Oil. His trials and tribulations as a self-made man are immense - hijackings of his oil trucks; the assault of one of his drivers Julian (Elyes Gabel); being investigated by Assistant District Attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo) for possible price fixing and tax evasion; and, being on the cusp of an immense deal to acquire a fuel oil terminal that is advantageously situated on the East RiverThe $1.5 million deal is to close in 30 days with the backing of a cooperative bank loan.

Here, Isaac has the quiet but menacing resolve of a young Pacino, the reserved but deadly Pacino of The Godfather trilogy, not the overblown ham of later years. It's in the eyes, the quiet fury, the impression that great violence is possible if he wills it. This image of a striving Hispanic immigrant makes for a striking contrast to the representations of the posh, brainy Brits in The Imitation Game or The Theory of Everything or the down home good old boy in American Sniper. Like many immigrants Morales is willing to get his hands dirty, even bloodied, to attain the American dream. 

Perhaps this flawed, gritty image doesn't resonate with members of the Academy. Perhaps Anna Morales (a powerfully portrayed Jessica Chastain), Morales' acid tongued wife with the coarse New York accent, doesn't appeal to voters when pitted against a Felicity Jones as the gentle, embattled wife and mother in Theory or a Julianne Moore as the sweet-tempered, befuddled professor with Alzheimer's in Still Alice. Certainly their respective portraits are gentler, less abrasive than Chastain's with her cheap blonde bob and long, lacquered nails. 

We recoil inwardly when Anna, in a very Lady MacBeth move, shoots a suffering deer struck by their car before her startled husband or when she subtly threatens the District Attorney who is raiding her house or when she belittles her husband Abel for his perceived timidity but we respect and fear her. Chastain commands the scenes she is in. In many ways, she is more determined, more ruthless, than Abel. 

Morales' home and the work environment becomes increasingly volatile and dangerous. He feels personally threatened - finding a lurker outside his new home whom he chases off into the woods and when his young daughter finds a loaded gun on their property (likely left by the same man). Hearing of his troubles, the head of the Teamsters encourages him to arm his drivers which he refuses to do thinking it will incite greater violence. 

When the skittish Julian returns to work he is again accosted by armed hijackers on the Queensboro Bridge and he brandishes a gun against Morales' specific warning. When the police arrive both he and his attackers all flee. Julian goes into hiding. Subsequently, the bank informs Morales that due to the impending criminal indictments and this recent violent incident, they can no longer finance his purchase of the terminal.

Desperate, Morales approaches various sources, some unsavoury, to scrounge up the $1.5 million required: a competitor; his younger brother Peter who co-signs a mortgage loan; even a "friendly" Mafia don (an understated but effective performance by Alessandro Nivola) who tries to dissuade him from doing business with him. 

During this time, Abel hears a radio call for help from one of his drivers who is being hijacked. As he is nearby, Morales furiously pursues the stolen truck until it accidentally capsizes. One hijacker is killed while the other flees on foot. When Morales catches him, he pummels the man, almost kills him and then coerces the hijacker into revealing who he is working for (Morales suspects a competitor and he is correct). He then confronts this competitor and demands the value of the stolen fuel (more than $200,000) or he will be reported to the federal authorities. 

While still scrambling to secure the money for the deal, Morales learns that Anna has been "skimming" from the company and placing large amounts into a secret account. She "offers" to give him the money (the money she stole from him - this girl has parts as they say in my old neighborhood!). Initially enraged, he finally accepts the money. 

Morales secures the fuel terminal at last but when he visits the property he is once again confronted by Julian, now a fugitive, who blames Morales for his fate - a wanted man, with no job or security or home - a failure in his own eyes. Julian's last speech before she shoots himself is a desperate acknowledgement that he has gained nothing ... the American dream has eluded him. He aspired to have all that Morales has and achieved ... nothing. 

Maybe this message is too pessimistic in these trying times for the average viewer. Maybe those in positions of  privilege feel beleaguered, harassed by those importuning that they be let in - blacks, minorities, immigrants, women. Maybe that's why the film, and Isaac's performance, was overlooked. Maybe. 

The film cost $20 million to make; it grossed $4.6 million (as of February 8, 2015). With these numbers, sadly, why would anyone give the director J.C. Chandor another opportunity regardless of the quality of the writing and the performances if it is not supported by cinema goers who are eager to see good work? 

J.C. Chandor

1 comment:

Caterina Edwards said...

Marco and I also liked this film very much. It was complex and serious - in a good way. Loved the performances by Chastain and Issac.
And for me, the sotry of the striving hispanic immigrant was much more vital and relevant than a historic piece like The Imitation Game.