REVIEW: A Most Violent Year

23 01 2015

A Most Violent YearThe twelve months referred to in the title of “A Most Violent Year” are those of 1981, a period that saw an unprecedented spike in crime within the boroughs of New York City.  This illegality is not the story of the film, though; it is merely an intriguing backdrop for the saga of Oscar Isaac’s Abel Morales as he attempts to expand his property holdings in order to become a more competitive player in the heating oil business.  All the world seems to be operating without regard to law or ethics, and it practically invites him to abandon moral high ground.

Abel clings stubbornly to his principles, refusing to arm his trucks even when they get held up and robbed.  The film rarely mentions this, but Abel is an immigrant from Colombia who married into a leadership role in the company.  While mostly masks the traces of his accent, the effect of his heritage is present in every decision he makes.  Abel realizes how far he has come, as well as how far he has to tumble with just a single prideful misstep.

Isaac makes this deliberative stoicism absolutely riveting, coloring Abel with shades of Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone from “The Godfather” series.  He knows when the character is weak, when he is strong, and, most importantly, when he has absolutely no idea why any of it is worth the trouble.  It’s one of the beautiful ironies of “A Most Violent Year” that Isaac seems so in control of Abel, yet each passing scene in the film slowly strips away the illusion of control of his destiny from the character.

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REVIEW: Devil’s Knot

4 06 2014

DVL00056INTH_DEVIL'S-KNOT.inddThe miscarriage of justice in the case of the West Memphis Three, a group of Satanist wrongfully convicted of murdering young children in rural Arkansas, has received plenty of attention from non-fiction filmmakers.  Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky have created the “Paradise Lost” trilogy about their case; the final film netted them an Oscar nomination.  And if that wasn’t enough, Academy Award nominee Amy Berg made her own documentary on the subject, “West of Memphis,” to great acclaim.

Now I love a good documentary, and judging from the occasional surprise mainstream crossover hit like “Blackfish,” most audiences aren’t opposed to them either.  Yet there’s only a limited audience that those films can reach, sadly, due to some inherent bias people seem to possess against non-fiction filmmaking.  If you take a look at the list of highest-grossing documentaries, no one is reaching wide audiences unless they are Michael Moore, a pop star, or a cute animal.

I don’t doubt the good intentions behind the filmmaking team of “Devil’s Knot,” a narrativized account of the events in the case.  If you tell the story as a legal thriller with Oscar winners like Colin Firth and Reese Witherspoon, it has the potential to reach an entirely different crowd of people that would never stop to watch a true-life procedural.

It’s a real shame, then, that Atom Egoyan’s film fails to connect on just about every level.  His feckless direction leaves “Devil’s Knot” not a tonal mess but downright confusing.  Reducing a subject that has received nearly seven hours of coverage from the “Paradise Lost” films alone into a two hour feature is a lofty task, and Egoyan never figures out an effective method of intelligibly conveying the facts and events.  (Not to mention, there are still enough questions lingering in the case to fill another film.)

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