Greetings again from the darkness. The tar pits of La Brea. Michael Corleone. These are the two things that come to mind as I grasp for descriptive terms to use for writer/director JC Chandor’s latest film. Picture a slow simmer never quite reaching the boiling point … that’s the designed tone here. It’s certainly not the period piece crime thriller that the trailer might have you poised for. In fact, there is more focus on marital communication than the criminal element so prevalent for the times.
In 1981, New York City was in the midst of an era filled with crime, corruption, violence and filth. Enter Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) as a tough-minded, but idealistic owner of a heating oil business. Abel’s vision is to become the top oil distributor, and remain a really good guy in the process. When he tells his less-idealistic competitors to “have some pride in their work”, it’s good advice to an audience incapable of comprehending. Despite regular violence and criminal activity against his drivers and trucks, Abel continues to deny he is at war … he truly believes if he can stay above the fracas, he can overcome the blight of his industry.
We never really see Abel have a good day. Even the high points are paired with hard knocks. A signed contract is followed by bank woes. A kid’s birthday party at the new house is interrupted by a search warrant. New market share is offset by a driver illegally defending himself. Each step Abel takes to realize his business vision is a potential land mine set by either his competitors or an ambitious District Attorney (David Oyelowo). And those aren’t even his most animated battles. See, Abel has willed himself to extraordinary self-control. He never blows a gasket, even if the moment calls for it. The only exception to this is with his vicious business partner and wife Anna (Jessica Chastain).
Anna grew up the daughter of a gangster … her dad once ran the business that she and Abel now run. Given the times, Anna takes a back seat to Abel and she handles the books, while he is the face of the business with banks, competitors and Teamsters. It’s not difficult to imagine a movie focusing on Anna rather than Abel, and a couple of times, she makes it quite clear that she views herself as the real backbone of the business – a much tougher leader than her doe-eyed husband.
Isaac and Chastain are exceptional here, and they both pull off very tough roles. Abel is a philosopher is a world of barbarians. He is the most polite angry person you have likely ever seen. Anna, on the other hand, is the pretty face masking a ruthless gangster. They each believe their own way is the best way. When Abel explains that ‘The result is known’, and that there is only ‘one path that is most right’, we immediately know he believes this and lives his life accordingly.
In addition to Isaac, Chastain and Oyelow, other actors deserve recognition for their work here: Albert Brooks is Abel’s consigliore, in a style reminiscent of his Drive character; Alessandro Nivola is the most frightening type of gangster – the quiet, powerful kind; Catalina Sandino Moreno (Maria Full of Grace) is outstanding in her only scene; Elyes Gabel captures the frustrated driver looking for hope; Peter Gerety is spot on as the Teamsters lead; and Jerry Adler is a most unusual Jewish business man.
The camera work of cinematographer Bradford Young (Selma) helps make the style and story work. He films two of the most unusual chase scenes – one on foot across the highway, and another with a car and truck on railroad tracks and through a dark tunnel. Both are critical to story and character, and provide a stylistic flourish that pumps things up in a movie otherwise devoid of traditional action.
The story is captivating because of things that are intimated, rather than things that are said. A couple of other films set in this era are Prince of the City and Serpico, and though the tone and look may be familiar, Chandor’s approach is unique. It’s not difficult to imagine Oscar Isaac took his acting cues from Al Pacino as Michael Corleone, and oddly enough, it’s possible to imagine him as Tony Montana in a Scarface remake! At the core of all of these characters … the American Dream.