Two recent movies—J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year and Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s Still Alice—are understated depictions of two protagonists in harrowing, though very different, predicaments. Both films have strong points in their favor, but neither quite manages to justify its claims on the viewer’s attention.
Of the two, A Most Violent Year is the more complex and memorable. The film is set in New York City in the winter of 1981—a year, according to Chandor, when violent crime reached its apex in the city. It was also the year that heating oil reached its highest prices. As Chandor demonstrates, these facts were far from unconnected.
At the beginning of A Most Violent Year, heating oil mogul Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) and his attorney Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks) make a massive down payment in cash on an oil storage terminal that would give them a considerable advantage over their competitors. But as terminal owner Josef (Jerry Adler) admonishes them, Abel has thirty days to deliver the rest of the money, or the deal is void and he forfeits the down payment.
This is the precise moment when everything starts to go wrong for Abel. First, his top driver Julian (Elyes Gabel), a friend and fellow immigrant, is beaten up at a tollbooth and his oil truck hijacked. Then he is called in to a meeting with the local district attorney (David Oyelowo), who informs Abel that he is facing indictment on multiple counts of fraud and racketeering.
This is particularly galling to Abel, who has always prided himself on his scruples and his refusal to play by the rules of his more gangsterish colleagues. It gets worse: one night Abel catches a prowler in his elegant suburban house. The prowler escapes, leaving no clue as to his identity. The next morning, Abel’s wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) discovers one of their small daughters with a gun she found in a bush outside the front door.
Abel goes to his colleagues to see if any is willing to loan him the money to complete the deal on the terminal. This course of action does not go over well with Anna. Her father was the previous owner of Abel’s business, and she’s a true believer in her father’s way of doing things. Pointing out that some of Abel’s colleagues must be behind the hijackings and the trumped-up charges, Anna urges him—and not gently—to give his enemies a taste of their own medicine.
A Most Violent Year is Chandor’s third feature, and it is very much of a piece with his first, Margin Call, which portrays business corruption as systemic and invincible. Both films build slowly, presenting in exact detail the process in which otherwise honorable men, worn down and tempted in equal degrees, become corrupt. A Most Violent Year boasts a firmer directorial hand than Margin Call, and both films are superbly acted. But Margin Call, despite its rookie mistakes, was never boring. The same cannot be said of A Most Violent Year.
The hushed, darkened scenes in which Abel goes begging for loans are interminable, especially in the first half. The second half is more interesting than the first, as we start to comprehend the business culture Chandor is depicting. The second half also boasts two brilliant action scenes. In the first, Julian is attacked again in his new truck, and tries to defend himself. In the second, Abel catches a thug in the act of hijacking one of his trucks, and chases him through a tunnel and onto the subway in a scene that would do credit to The French Connection. Yet these scenes, plus the accretion of detail that leads to the film’s thoroughly depressing ending, aren’t enough to keep the audience from shrugging.
This is too bad, because with a little more forward momentum A Most Violent Year could have been a masterpiece. Cinematographer Bradford Young provides an apt visual palette of beiges, blacks, grays and whites that underscores the bleakness of Chandor’s vision. The beige comes mostly through the camel-hair coat worn by Oscar Isaac, who once again proves himself one of the most versatile and charismatic young actors working today. Many critics have remarked on the resemblance between Isaac’s Abel and Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone; Abel has the same coat, the same dark pompadour, the same expression of stony rectitude that barely conceals volcanic passions. The difference is that Abel, at least ostensibly, believes you really can pull yourself up by your own bootstraps through legal means. The best bit of comic relief in A Most Violent Year comes when Abel instructs his salesmen on how to comport themselves with prospective customers. “Always take the more refined choice,” he says eagerly, instructing them always to ask for tea instead of coffee when the customer offers.
By the end, we wonder whether Abel was ever really honorable. A simple, cold gesture Abel makes in the film’s penultimate scene suggests otherwise. Would that all the scenes in A Most Violent Year were that good.
Whereas A Most Violent Year has several points in its favor, Still Alice essentially has one: Julianne Moore.
Moore plays Alice Howland, a renowned linguistics professor at Columbia University, enjoying a privileged upper-middle-class life with her attentive husband (Alec Baldwin) and beautiful grown children (Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish).
One day Alice finds herself unable to remember a key word in her lecture. Shortly thereafter, she goes for a run on the Columbia campus, as she has done every day for years, and finds herself lost. It isn’t long until she, her family and the audience hear the diagnosis: early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
Moore deserves unadulterated praise for her subtle, delicately nuanced portrayal of Alice. With absolute precision, Moore shows Alice’s fear and desperation at slowly losing everything that makes life worth living. We feel Alice’s pain deeply as she invents games for herself on her computer and cell phone, trying to remember a list of ever simpler words and—finally—the names of her children.
The rest of Still Alice, alas, is tasteful but formulaic. Once we know Alice’s plight, there are no surprises left in the story, except for the fairly easy-to-guess mystery about the computer message Alice leaves for herself. The film runs on in the way of all disease-of-the-week movies—in other words, on autopilot. All the other actors, even Baldwin, are stuck in strictly reactive roles. Baldwin has proven many times over that he can be unforgettable when given a chance; unfortunately, as in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, he isn’t given one in Still Alice.
Still Alice is strikingly reminiscent of Do You Remember Love, a 1985 TV-movie starring Joanne Woodward in an Emmy-winning performance as a poet and English professor diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Although I have not seen the film since it was first broadcast, I remember being very impressed with Woodward’s performance, and also with those of Richard Kiley and Geraldine Fitzgerald as her husband and mother.
In October 2013, it was reported that Joanne Woodward had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.