Sunday, March 1, 2015


The makings of this one suggest it might be a gangland drama by Scorsese or even a camped up copy by Tarrantino or a camped up Tarrantino by one of his copyists. Self-made immigrant businessman tries to expand without resorting to crime but his rivals make that very difficult by hijacking his trucks. He stands alone against the black hats, ready to crash or crash through. Bring on the juke box soundtrack from the 1981 setting and let's make a MOVIE!

But this is a slow, deliberate piece that asks you to examine rather than thrill. There is a constant tension on a slow phasing pulse. Abel Morales is not just troubled by the piratical hijackers but is on a clock to fulfil a property deal which would set him up for life or ruin him if it fails. And then there's the DA who is bringing bad business charges to his door which might well hold water if his beloved but suspect spouse did what she kind of hinted she did. There is no way out. Will a Cain explode out of this Abel?

That looming question is rendered resonant by the sparseness of the score, the darkness of the interiors and their period brown-led pallet; if ever mise-en-scene were put in the service of such studied melancholy it were never as profoundly done as here. And yet this quality was the thing I resisted all through the first act, expecting it to escalate into action. Only when I understood that I was to follow this flawed and vulnerable man through the valley of temptation and that it would not be an easy trek did I relax and allow myself to be fascinated. This is a film of fascination.

Moments of violence and action don't relieve the tension as much as thicken it. They also serve to show that the director is well able to stage them convincingly and his refusal to give into them is like his protagonist's determination to maintain his integrity. A chase by car and then foot lifts us with it (some expert steadicam work here expressing some wondrous moments of inertia) and concludes with a poignant demonstration of this restraint. The lack of relief that we crave adds more weight with each passing and passed opportunity for it. J C Chandor, whose All is Lost compelled me last year by allowing its linear and burdensome narrative to play out in full, here applies the same deliberation to what is essentially a western in New York. It's not a neo-Leone campfest nor an overly observed homage to John Ford but more of a new Western from the late 60s like McCabe and Mrs Miller or True Grit. A moment with the hijackers reveals the same point about them being workers as cattle rustlers or hired guns were in the eyes of a Robert Altman or Arthur Penn.

Oscar Isaac as Abel keeps his fire under the permafrost of his manly bearing which wears the elegance of his wardrobe as an earned thing. The more vulgar Anna (a glowing and dangerous Jessica Chastain in Armani) is among the few who can draw that fire but even she observes Abel's stance, not slavishly but seriously. Abert Brooks is unrecognisable as Abel's lawyer/deputy by his combover, wire specs and downplaying. This is a story with a single protagonist but is entirely dependent on the solidity of the world of others it creates around him.

I have given little plot in this review and seem to have been affected by the sobriety of the film which might suggest indifference. It isn't. Here is a film that dares to play against expectations to offer a contemplation of the difficulty of goals; a kind of humanist prayer in the din of the feast around it.

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