I saw a tweet from a critic at some point just after the announcement of the 2015 Oscar nominees that encouraged everyone to seek out and watch films the Academy snubbed, seeing as there’s plenty of time to catch up with the favorites between now and February 22nd. I thought that was a great idea.
I first became familiar with J.C. Chandor in late 2013 around the time critics were predicting that Robert Redford would earn an Academy Award nomination for his solo performance in Chandor’s second feature, All Is Lost (2013). Back in September of 2014 Netflix made All Is Lost available for streaming so I gave it a shot and was blown away (no pun intended, seriously).
Most recently critics have been raving about Chandor’s third feature, A Most Violent Year (2014), starring Oscar Issac, Jessica Chastain, and David Oyelowo. There were hopes that the film would earn some sort of Oscar nomination on the strength of a variety of smaller critic’s circle and association awards, but as it turns out A Most Violent Year was completely snubbed. In the end only Chastain was nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress, losing to a much deserved Patricia Arquette who played a strong single mother in Boyhood (2014).
It’s seems from the way critics write about J.C. Chandor that he might be the next great American filmmaker. His first feature, Margin Call, was well received in 2011 earning Chandor his first Academy Award nomination, and its success led to a green light for the markedly different but equally impressive All Is Lost.
Knowing Margin Call and A Most Violent Year are closer in style and substance (All Is Lost takes place entirely at sea, with almost no dialogue), I decided to knock them out back to back.
Though, if I’m being honest about chronology, I must admit that before watching those I snuck in a viewing of Nightcrawler (2014) starring Jake Gyllenhaal. And I feel like it’s important that we discuss it first because Nightcrawler is the kind of film, and Gyllenhaal gives the kind of performance, that leaves an impression on you.
It’s a shame that Gyllenhaal didn’t win the Golden Globe for Best Actor – Drama, losing to Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. But it’s even worse that the only love Nightcrawler got from the Academy was in the form of a Best Original Screenplay nomination for writer-director Dan Gilroy.
In particular, after Nightcrawler, you’re left to wonder whether or not Gyllenhaal’s character Louis “Lou” Bloom is good or bad person. It’s a simple question you could ask yourself of any character after any movie, but in Nightcrawler it seems to be the central elephant in the room.
One thing that’s clear from the jump is that Louis Bloom is driven. To do what, he isn’t sure, but he’s determined to be successful at something, he’s willing to do anything, he just needs the opportunity.
He finds that opportunity in freelance breaking news videos after stumbling upon an accident one night and intently watching another regular joe do it. He learns he can produce and sell clips of these incidents himself, and the more graphic in nature the better the pay.
Lou admittedly spends a lot of time on the internet, absorbing as much information about as many things as possible. And over time he’s able to improve his craft, his tools, and even hire an assistant (Riz Ahmed).
As he continues to sell these clips to local a Los Angeles news station exec, Nina (Renee Russo), he enjoys the money, but more so he enjoys the thrill of the chase, the hunt for the perfect footage.
Lou becomes consumed by that pursuit and has no problem manipulating people or situations to get the perfect footage he so desperately covets, his big break if you will. It affords Gyllenhaal an opportunity to get lost deep in a multifaceted character with so many levels that it’s impossible to nail down a sense of what kind of monster Lou is – an inherently good or inherently bad one?
Surely he does some unethical and and illegal things in his pursuit, but in doing so Lou is able to push the boundaries of local news journalism and ensure success for himself and his (reluctant) partner Nina. Other times in the film it’s his inaction, allowing situations to develop, that open new opportunities for game changing footage or leverage. But I don’t feel as if Lou does any of these things to harm or deliberately destroy anyone. He’s simply into his work, determined to be known as a success, and willing to leverage every opportunity. Except he engages in these behaviors to a fault, to a loss of regard for human decency and value in actual relationships. However, in many ways, his disregard for human decency is essential to setting himself apart in his line of work, matters of the graphic and grotesque. Does that, and the art produced from that line of thinking, make him a bad person?
Personally, I think it’s the deepest Gyllenhaal has been able to get into a character and evolve throughout the film since Jarhead in 2005, the same year he was nominated for his only Academy Award for Brokeback Mountain. Despite the lack of awards, Gyllenhaal has been on fire recently, with each film he’s starred in covering its budget and then some for his last 7 major US releases.
J.C. Chandor worked on getting Margin Call made for 15 years. The film depicts an investment banking firm over 36 hours on the edge of a financial crisis, mirroring the events of the 2007 housing market crash. Chandor drew from his experience growing up as the son of an investment banker, thus uniquely understanding their movements, emotions, and motivations.
It features an ensemble cast of Kevin Spacey, Stanley Tucci, Zachary Quinto, Jeremy Irons, Paul Bettany, and Demi Moore (among others) as various members of risk and upper level management at the firm. Today when I think of Kevin Spacey I immediately go to Frank Underwood’s South Carolina drawl, but it was refreshing to see Spacey from a time before everyone expected that accent from him.
It’s hard to pick a star or main character, but Spacey’s Sam Rogers serves as the film’s moral compass as he swings between doing what feels capitalistically prudent and what just feels right. Ultimately, and repeatedly, what’s right in this world is what’s right by the rules of capitalism. The foremost of those being: if you have a piece of information, it’s best to act on it first. Beyond that it’s useful to have a sense of self-preservation that trumps any conscience for those who will inevitably bear the brunt of what should be your loss. That the potential loss is more than the company’s worth only heightens the tension.
In those tense, critical moments where decisions must be made, the characters are asked to look inside themselves. They’re asked to truthfully and with a clear head consider the alternatives. On one hand there’s total bankruptcy in every conceivable way for all parties involved, especially those who hesitate or second guess. Or if they all cut their losses early, no matter how steep they will be, there will be an opportunity for recovery (or cushy severance packages). The market, life itself, goes in cycles like that for those lucky enough to stay on board the carousel when the music slows, and are potentially useful when things speed up again.
If you don’t find that situation stressful enough, Chandor demonstrates through some of his stylistic choices that he is capable of elevating a good script to another level. The camera is steady with little sweeping movement and many lingering takes. Music is also sparce, as one would expect in a highly stressful floor such as this. The lack of persistent music and longer takes that occasionally creep in on subjects in moments of consternation serve to ratchet up the tension. Other choices like staying with a shot as characters walk back and forth across the camera casting shadows accomplishes the same.
With A Most Violent Year, Chandor shows the development of his directorial skills, further establishing a signature style.
Oscar Issac, who broke out as Llewyn in the Cohen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) and will soon play a lead role in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, climbs on my list of favorite actors with his performance as Abel Morales. Abel is the owner of Standard Heating Oil Company and is looking to expand his oil and gas efforts in New York in 1981 – you guessed it, a particularly violent year. All of a sudden someone is hijacking Abel’s trucks, syphoning the gas, and abandoning them later. Aside from the lost oil, drivers are beginning to fear for their safety simply driving around the city, threatening to walk.
Closer to home, their new home, Abel encounters and wards off a would be intruder which shakes his wife Anna’s (Jessica Chastain) faith in Abel’s ability to keep them safe as well. To top it all off, the District Attorney (David Oyelowo) is preparing to indict Abel on 14 or so counts of fraud, tax evasion, etc. – which Abel shifts over to his accountant, who happens to also be his wife.
All of Chandor’s dramas thus far involve characters in situations that only seem to go from bad to worse with seemingly no end other than death despite their best efforts, but there’s rarely hopelessness. Instead, both Abel and Sam keep faith in and keep preaching the virtue of truth. For them staying true to themselves and doing what’s right is what’s best. They know they haven’t done anything illegal or unclean, even though their industries are built on deception and slight of hand, and they trust that truth will continue to bring them success.
For Abel though what’s right is more much difficult to determine. Like Sam, Abel owes everything he has built to capitalism, but he will not go so far as to become a gangster to continue his dream. It wouldn’t be his dream anymore then, he doesn’t want it that way.
He resolves to solve his problems himself, leaving no stone unturned, but will do so the right way. For a while he’s skittish, unsure of how to go about being strong in a colder world than he imagined. Numerous events throughout the film serve to harden Abel, and Isaac proves more than capable of cooly carrying on with a certain air of panache that appears heavily gangster, but maintains a relatable human touch.
In A Most Violent Year, Chandor casts his characters in more shadows than Margin Call, which mostly takes place on one floor of an office building. With a large, secluded home, chases through the streets of New York, and one particularly great scene pulled over on the side of the road in the dead of the night, A Most Violent Year has much more action than Chandor’s first two features. Scenes where characters will move back and forth across a still camera and around a mostly dark room are longer and more plentiful. Chandor uses the technique along with the slow creep zoom in to build a greater sense of dread that things might not work out this time. Scenes where characters move in pitch darkness are all the more thrilling, even if they aren’t moving much at all.
At some point Abel states to a young protege, “I’ve always been a lot more afraid of failure than anything else.” Aren’t we all?
If one is willing to do anything to avoid failure, does that make them a bad person? What price is too much to pay for one’s own success? In retrospect, it’s pretty simple, the pursuit of your success shouldn’t come at the expense of someone else’s. But sometimes that’s unavoidable, depending on how bad you want to succeed.