Year of living dangerously
Got to hand it to Mr. Chandor: he doesn't do anything the same way twice, from the ensemble thriller Margin Call (set during the '08 financial crisis) to the Robert Redford chamber piece All is Lost to this (released in DVD/Bluray last April), his biggest most daring production yet--daring in that it has the effrontery to invite comparison with Francis Coppola's Godfather films.
For the record, not a big fan of Coppola's best-known work--they're a triumph, yes, but of in my book conventional filmmaking. Chandor to his credit takes the basic material and fashions something steelier, more straight-edged, almost perverse in its determination to hew to its own course.
The gambit works, for the most part. Oscar Isaac as Abel Morales runs his heating oil company like the Corleone crime family, with the noted difference that Morales is sincere about wanting to go legit while his wife Anna (a laugh-out-loud hilarious Jessica Chastian) mostly pays lip service to the sentiment. Isaac is cleanshaven for this film (in startling contrast to his hirsute, enormously self-centered troubadour in the Coens' Inside Llewyn Davis), and channels Michael Corleone as played by St. Thomas More (an intelligent aspiring gangster with a preternatural sense of restraint and an inconvenient set of morals).
Is it possible to go legit? Can Morales walk the fine line between running his company (in an industry not known for principled policies) and keeping his high ground? Can he handle the criminal investigation being spearheaded by Assistant District Attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo, refreshingly sinister after playing a Civil Rights icon in Selma)? The unknown men hijacking his delivery trucks? The loan deadline looming over his head, threatening the East River oil terminal he has just hocked his soul to finance?
Actually that last is a sort of "duh!" proposition: when the ancient-looking Chassidim present an incredible offer that can totally screw up your life should you fail to close, you really should think twice; mild elderly men assume the appearance of mildness because they don't want to scare folks away--they have a deal to negotiate.
Chandor piles on the problems; Isaac's Morales presses his lips and tightens his grip on self-control. On the big screen his broad forehead looms like a bank of thunderclouds, a furrow fracturing the smoothness like a lightningbolt--perhaps the film's single most suspenseful subplot hinges on whether or not he's going to crack, and how bad it gets when he does.
Perhaps the greatest threat to his self-control isn't the district attorney or the rival companies or even hijackers; it's Anna, who has close ties with the Mob, and who Morales can barely keep in check. Chastain is a jawdropper here: gorgeous in the expensive outfits Morales buys for her, vaguely threatening when she offers to 'take care' of his problems, an offer he keeps turning down. Which you don't quite understand (but feel queasy about, nevertheless) till she walks up and fires a bullet into a stricken deer's skull. Morales' temper just about brims over; she doesn't just question his authority but his manhood, and still he can't lay a finger on her (daddy would get mad). Between her and all the wolves at his door it's a wonder the man can keep moving, much less maneuver.
I've heard complaints that despite the title there's a lack of drama to the film. Didn't bother me--far as I can see Chandor aimed for understated suspense and oppressive atmosphere, sustains the mood with sadistic skill. Early on we see a hijacking gone wrong, and the sense of skittering at the edge (the driver in defiance of Morales' orders brings a gun, and fires on his attackers) and unexpected slapstick (the hijackers turn out to be no more competent at assault than the driver is at defense) feels fresh, unpredictable; you can taste the panic of everyone involved.
A more damning problem (skip the rest of this paragraph if you plan to see the film) is the lack of a proper antagonist. Michael Corleone faced Solozzo and Hyman Roth, both brilliant strategists; the most Morales can muster is a pack of abusive industry colleagues and a small-time predator with a yellow streak (the only worthy opponent in the film turns out to be his wife, and she's on his side). Chandor is in the same predicament as Robert Bolt in A Man for All Seasons: protagonist Thomas More is so much wittier and more eloquent than everyone else he's practically an echo chamber; there's no one to oppose him, no one to provide contrast to his spiky mix of intelligence and compassion. And unlike in Coppola's films and James Gray's (in my book superior) We Own the Night, Morales' story arc doesn't quite follow a downward spiral, doesn't give us the satisfying thud of a damned soul hitting rock bottom.
All that said--smart stylish film, one of the better ones of 2014. Actually looking forward to Chandor's next work, with the expectation that (yes) it's going to look and feel like something completely different.
First published in Businessworld 6.11.2015