There’s a line in a review of J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year, written by Metro‘s Matt Prigge, that caught my eye this morning. The New York-based crime and heating-oil film, he said, is “all foreplay, but it’s good foreplay.” It’s actually mostly foreplay, not all. Because the movie “comes” at least four or five times. Or seven or eight times if your definition of a cinematic orgasm is on the liberal, less-strict side. What Prigge means is that A Most Violent Year never explodes in any kind of wild-ass, gun-crazy, super-splatter showoff fashion. It doesn’t give you an orgasm that leaves you panting and spent.
That’s because Chandor is keeping it “real”, which is a concept or approach that 90% of the action-film directors have pretty much thrown out the window. Their movies have foreplay, of course, as all action sequences have to deliver some kind of semi-realistic, semi-logical motivation, but the emphasis is always on climaxes, and as many as can be fit in. Except life in general is almost entirely foreplay. How often do people experience orgasms in their lives, apart from sexually? Damn seldomly. And yet 90% of moviegoers buy tickets with the expectation of experiencing one shuddering Kama Sutra moment after another.
Chandor’s film currently has a 92% Rotten Tomatoes and 84% Meteoritic rating, which obviously places it in the upper bracket of must-sees. But of course, as I noted on 11.7, there’s that title to get past.
“Violence certainly happens from time to time [in the film] but why J.C. decided to call it A Most Violent Year is…well, I don’t get it,” I wrote. “It’s about a highly disciplined, super-determined guy (Queens-based heating-oil supplier Oscar Isaac) trying very hard to solve his problems with honor and smarts and without resorting to violence or allowing his employees to do the same. It’s about clannish groups and predatory behavior and laws and bank loans and oil storage tanks and the whims of prosecutors. It’s an urban-jungle story in which violence only punctuates the story like periods and commas punctuate a typical paragraph.
“But it’s the real thing, man. It really, really delivers if you understand the value of ‘real,’ which, I realize, is not what it used to be.
“In this, one of the finest, most unpretentious and plain-dealing New York melodramas you’ve ever seen or will see, Chandor (as I sensed a few months back) seems to be channelling the ghost of Sidney Lumet, and particularly the New York culture savant who made Prince of the City, Serpico, Find Me Guilty, The Pawnbroker, Q & A, Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead and 12 Angry Men — the grit, aroma, skew and patois of it all. What a feast those films were, and here’s another to join their company.
“I’ve noted before that A Most Violent Year doesn’t feel particularly baity or derby-ish because a 1980s Sidney Lumet crime film doesn’t massage the standards of the softies who want love, comfort and close-to-home reflections about children and family and triumphing over tragedy or adversity, etc. It’s very much a Queens period piece, and is so dyed-in-the-wool New Yorky that it doesn’t particularly speak to our 21st Century zeitgeist. But it’s absolutely one of my personal Top Ten films of the year. I love films like this. No pretensions, nothing fussy, acted to the nines, cut with an Exacto knife.
“If you didn’t know it after Margin Call and All Is Lost, you’ll damn sure know it after seeing A Most Violent Year: Chandor makes carefully shaded, super-smart, highly engrossing films that always feel rooted and atmospheric and steeped in the exact same stuff that sometimes makes your life (or mine or your son’s or neighbor’s) seem dicey or anxious or worse. Chandor is a first-rate, can-do situationalist (his next film is Deepwater Horizon, a disaster flick about the BP oil spill) and, right now and for my money, the best guy working in that all-but-faded staple — the serious, non-quirky, non-high concept, middle-budget drama with name-brand actors that’s aimed at mature types.
“And yet so far Chandor’s films haven’t exhibited a strong personal signature. Maybe they never will. Maybe they’ll just stick to being damn good and leave it at that. So okay, Chandor is not Howard Hawks, Francois Truffaut, Stanley Kubrick or Sam Peckinpah (or not yet) but he’s not a journeyman either. Maybe he’s some kind of chameleon but he seems incapable of mediocrity. He’s about as far as you can get from the Quentin Tarantino School of Swaggering, Look-At-Me Bullshit as you can get, and that’s a glorious thing in my book. Right now and for the foreseeable future (i.e., until he fucks up) “directed by J.C. Chandor” is a can’t-lose proposition.
“Isaac delivers like a champ but I didn’t like his Abel Morales character as much as I did Jessica Chastain‘s Anna, who’s one tough, mostly unprincipled mama and definitely her father’s daughter. The basic shot is that Abel wants to play it semi-honorably and by the above-board rules, but we can sense right away that this won’t get it — that he’s going to have to come up with some kind of hardball strategy to get himself out of trouble. Anna knows this right away while Abel takes a while to face up.
“A pat on the back for costars Alessandro Nivola, David Oyelowo, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Ashley Williams, Elyes Gabel, Harris Yulin (whom I don’t even remember seeing in this thing), Giselle Eisenberg and Elizabeth Marvel. And cheers to cinematographer Bradford Young (Middle of Nowhere, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) and editor Ron Patane.”