Friday, November 14, 2014

Scattered in the ashes: A Most Violent Year and the memories of a dream

The man with a plan, Abel Morales, played by Oscar Isaac, goes after what he wants with the help of his wife, Anna, played by Jessica Chastain, in A Most Violent Year.

The American Dream is dead and buried. Its final resting place: New York City. And, on its bones, we built a metropolis. Though the skyscrapers were founded on the sweat, blood, and tears of the many, the rooms at the top had room for only a few. That inequality bred resentment. Resentment bred anger, and that anger gave birth to violence. The town of “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere” quickly became the town of “Make it here and move anywhere else.” After all, who wants to live in a graveyard?

This is the world of A Most Violent Year, the third feature from the brilliant writer-director JC Chandor. The film had its New York premiere in front of a packed house Thursday at the Museum of Modern Art, which kicked off its Contenders series with the screening and a question-and-answer session with Chandor. An homage to and subversion of gangster movie tropes, the film is a stirring depiction of the compromises we make to achieve our goals and the toll that can take on our humanity.

“He’s the optimistic one,” said Chandor of his main character, played by Oscar Isaac. “He’s the one buying property when everyone else is running out of town. That’s part of the optimism here, and it’s not fun to watch it happen because it’s never clean. It’s never perfect. You don’t get to where this guy’s gotten in life without making some compromises. … It’s not a straight line that you’re going to walk.”

Isaac plays Abel Morales, the immigrant owner of a small fuel company who sees a chance to make it big and puts everything on the line for it. As the film opens, Abel is purchasing a large piece of land he can barely afford, his tanker trucks are being hijacked, possibly by one of his competitors, and his company is under investigation. At the start, Abel is above reproach, a testament to the model of hard work and ingenuity so often praised in this country but rarely followed, but as each new complication tightens the noose around his neck, he must decide how far he is willing to go to protect what he has built.

To use the terminology of the mobster movies A Most Violent Year is so fond of evoking, if Abel is the head of the family, his wife, Anna, is consigliere. Jessica Chastain is perfect as the hard-nosed pragmatist, willing to get her hands dirty when her husband wants to play clean. She comes from a mob family and mentions her gangster father on more than one occasion. It is a connection that once drawn, creates a looming threat of extreme violence, the possibility that the situation could get even darker, even bloodier than it already is.

Violence lurks in every corner of the picture, rarely manifesting itself in a tangible way. Instead, we hear radio broadcasts about shootings and stabbings and robberies. We see the characters pass by dilapidated buildings and the poor, broken residents of the city. Nothing is sacred, and nothing is safe from the blight on the periphery of the characters’ lives, which is what makes the true acts of violence that much more effective. The audience always is on edge because the world of the film is so chaotic, and though the characters hide away from it all, no one can stay hidden forever.

Writer-director JC Chandor (left) answers a question during a talk at the Museum of Modern Art after the New York premiere of his new film, A Most Violent Year.

“An act of violence has horrible repercussions for those around it when it goes on,” said Chandor. “There’s this vibration that comes out from it – the people that see it, the people that are directly affected by it, and the people that know those people – but the broader destruction that happens is when society as a whole, everyone here, starts to choose a totally different path for how you got here and how you’re going to get home tonight.

“That’s not based on anything that happened directly in your life. It’s based on fear, whether it be realistic or whether it be legitimate or not. You may be right to fear walking across the street in many parts of the world, but it’s about the repercussions and the way entire civilizations can change because of the reaction to that.”

A Most Violent Year is a film about actions and reactions. In nearly every scene, someone has acted to push someone else into a corner. The tension comes from not knowing how the other person will react with his back against the wall. As such, power becomes a very nebulous thing throughout the movie. Everyone has a little, but no one has as much as he needs or wants. How much power do they need? Enough to knock the other guy out of the game because as long as all the pieces are on the board, any move is possible.

Isaac is stunning in the role of Abel. Much of the character’s struggle is internal – a conflict between what he believes is right and what he knows must be done. Isaac uses small gestures, slight changes in posture and facial expression, and impossibly precise line readings to convey the world of a man whose life is hurtling down a path he can no longer control, only navigate. Even as his dreams seem to come crashing down around him, Abel never blinks. He never strays from his path because for him, the only option, the only move, is to win.

“There are always these moments where you make real decisions about what the rest of your life is going to be,” said Chandor. “The one element of this film that I found that I didn’t know until you really see it is: They’ve knocked it out of the park when the movie starts. They’re driving around in their fancy cars, they’ve got enough money to send their kids to good schools, and they’re moving out to this big, fancy house, running away from the violence of New York City and moving to the suburbs.

“They are very comfortable, and things are going pretty well, but it’s at that moment that he realizes there’s an opportunity. In a normal environment, he probably would not be able to afford that place that he’s putting that deposit down on, but because of all these horrible things that are going on, obviously the prices are being depressed. So, he’s a person who sees that as a huge opportunity, which it is, but it’s also a tremendous risk.”

It is that “nothing ventured, nothing gained” attitude that determines Abel’s actions as he moves forward. The interesting subversion that takes place in this film is what “risk” ultimately means. The pragmatic view, the view Anna takes, is seeing the path of least resistance in responding to violence with violence and to aggression with aggression. In a traditional gangster picture, this would be the lens through which Abel sees the world, but this is not a traditional picture.

“The film is structured like the memory of a gangster movie,” said Chandor. “I’m better at making the movies than watching them, but I have these memories of what these types of films are. In a way, I’m playing on these sort of tropes but, in the end, hopefully playing against them by saying this is actually how success in this country is gained.”

Abel’s risk is to walk the line as long as he can. He stays on the straight and narrow until outside forces knock him off that path. Once they do, however, all bets are off because the risk-taker in Abel is always capable of doing something unexpected. That is what makes him such a dangerous adversary, the kind of person of whom those entrenched in his business would want to rid themselves.

As the story progresses, we meet many of Abel’s competitors, and the one thing they all have in common is that they received their businesses from their families. Not one person besides Abel is responsible for his own success. What they are protecting, then, is not just a way of business but a way of life. The industry is oil, but the subtext is revolution. They are the royal families with a tenuous grasp on their inherited power, and Abel is the outsider who has come to declare his independence.

His competitors have profited off the illusion of the American Dream. They killed it long ago but kept its ghost alive to haunt the dreams of those who seek to achieve what they have. Abel does not scare so easily, and if the specter of the dream is all that is left, he will make that enough. He will resurrect it as their nightmare, and no matter how high they build their walls, in the end, the bricks will tumble down, turn to dust, and join the ashes of a past they tried to bury.

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