Two Recent Period Films: A Most Violent Year and Inherent Vice (both 2014)

Two films that I’ve seen in the last week have a sort of complementary quality, as they are both films set in the United States at either end of the 1970s and at either edge of the country, charting a marked social decline and dealing broadly with the creeping corruption of deeply-held ideals. Inherent Vice is set in 1970, and is a broadly-comic meandering Los Angeles-based story focused on stoner detective Larry ‘Doc’ Martello (Joaquin Phoenix), while A Most Violent Year has its principled entrepreneur Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) try to grow his business in the New York City of 1981.

Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac in A Most Violent Year

I like both very much, though I suspect that aspects of the narrative construction will turn off some viewers. Both can be frustrating, albeit in slightly different ways. J.C. Chandor’s New York-set film is one of underlit interiors and slow-build dramatic tension, as Abel tries to get financing for a property deal that will give his company a platform to grow, while trying to figure out who is sabotaging his attempts. It’s a film with a canny sense of space, largely charting a series of offices and homes where Morales and his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) broker deals and balance books. There’s only a small amount of kinetic action: the drama is in the deals, and for a film quite so obsessed with Morales’s company accounts, it generates plenty of tension. Bradford Young’s understated cinematography gains maximum effect from the ever-popular yellowish sepia-toned filters that impart a nostalgic quality (while expertly blocking shots of the city’s skyline to occlude where the Twin Towers would be).

Ostensibly quite different in look and tone, Inherent Vice also builds slowly, but in a more novelistic way (befitting its source text) — a patchwork of characters and motivations that can overload the viewer. Those for whom plot details are important may be turned off by the excess of them, but in that respect it’s not unlike similarly overplotted gumshoe stories as The Big Sleep (1946). The setting and look, not to mention that paranoid West Coast vibe, bring to mind another Chandler point of reference in The Long Goodbye (1973). Cinematographer Robert Elswit has done a terrific job in replicating a lot of that earlier film’s feel, using celluloid stock to gorgeous effect. It’s the visual equivalent of a vinyl record — I’ll stop short of hymning any richer ‘authenticity’ (because I have little truck with those kinds of arguments), but it definitely imparts a quite different feel from the digitally-shot Violent Year.

Right now, I might as well go ahead and admit something controversial amongst critics, which is that I’ve never been much of a fan of auteur Paul Thomas Anderson and his massively overpraised films. Sure they’re well-crafted, but I’ve felt a hollowness of over-eager self-congratulatory intent from The Master and There Will Be Blood in particular; I’ve not hated either, but I’ve stopped short of embracing them. Indeed, at the end of last year, I was all ready to write a bit of anti-PTA clickbait in the run-up to this most recent opus. And yet, well, here we are, and I really liked Inherent Vice. It’s been getting a bit of a kicking from some quarters that feels entirely undeserved. It’s a mood piece, of hippy idealism being quietly subverted by forces of governmental conformism and the unscrupulousness of capitalist property developers. Mental health wellness institutions, massage parlours, office blocks and Aryan thugs are all brought into the picture to complicate the pot-addled simplicity of Doc’s lifestyle, and Phoenix is frequently called upon to express wide-eyed confusion at unfolding developments (not unlike the audience).

Spending time watching Inherent Vice is to immerse oneself in a world, an evocation of this most perplexing of American cities that can stand alongside Chinatown (another film touching on civic corruption). There’s no shortage of cameos for famous actors, but all are in service of the film’s period atmosphere and subtly comic timing. It’s even got me thinking, for the first time ever, that maybe I should reconsider Anderson’s oeuvre.


A Most Violent Year film posterA Most Violent Year (2014)
Director/Writer J.C. Chandor; Cinematographer Bradford Young; Starring Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Albert Brooks, David Oyelowo; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Haymarket, London, Thursday 29 January 2015.

 

 

Inherent Vice film posterInherent Vice (2014)
Director/Writer Paul Thomas Anderson (based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon); Cinematographer Robert Elswit; Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Joanna Newsom; Length 149 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Thursday 5 February 2015.

All Is Lost (2013)

The end of the year, when people traditionally have more holiday time, always brings lots of interesting films to cinemas, which makes it difficult to compile a ‘best of’ before one has seen the whole year out. Here in the UK we have not yet had American Hustle (except in one West End London cinema) or The Wolf of Wall Street, and 12 Years a Slave has only been at the London Film Festival, but Boxing Day sees the release of this one-man acting effort from Robert Redford, albeit a few months after it was released Stateside. And it’s fair to say that it makes a strong contender for a year-end best list, despite its very stripped-down plot. It’s going after similar survival-against-the-odds territory that Gravity was aiming for, but at its best All Is Lost more successfully earns its obvious spiritual dimension. After all, it deals with the grandest of themes — the ones usually focused on in the liturgies of organised religions — which is to say, redemption through suffering, grace and salvation.

There’s no doubt it’s a film which has been purposely shorn of anything extraneous, though, and it doesn’t surprise me to read perplexed accounts of it from people who did not perhaps connect with its narrative minimalism. After all, there’s barely any speech in it, aside from one loudly muttered imprecation, an attempt to radio for help, and a spoken introduction. It’s that introduction which sets the film’s stall: we open at a point where the unnamed protagonist, played by the ageing Robert Redford, clearly believes himself to be beyond rescue. He is writing to an unidentified person, and his words form the film’s credo, after a fashion. He apologises, he states he was trying but has failed, and then utters the film’s title. Any further backstory is mere speculation, and one spends a lot of the film trying to glean hints of what his situation might be — he is out on the ocean all alone, but he’s wearing a wedding ring, so one could suppose that he is writing to his (estranged?) wife, maybe children. Perhaps he’s on a voyage of self-discovery, perhaps his character has made mistakes in his life that he’s trying to rectify, or maybe he’s out there because he wants to die. All is speculation.

What’s certainly clear, though, is that whatever Redford’s reasons for being out alone in the middle of the Indian Ocean, once tragedy strikes, he works tirelessly to keep going. The tragic event opens the film after the spoken intro (between the two is an intertitle taking us back eight days), when his boat hits a stray shipping container and starts taking on water. From there, the film unfolds as a tense account of survivalism at sea, as the elderly but still rather spry Redford first tries to fix his boat, and then finds himself taking to a life raft to continue his journey. The setbacks he continues to face — primarily from the weather (at once stormy, then burningly hot) — make up the bulk of the film’s plot, and it all keeps things ticking along with some of the same anguished desperation that Gravity had, but in the maritime setting of Captain Phillips (another survival story, but against humans rather than nature).

Obviously, though, the religious themes are unavoidable here, most clearly in that introduction and then in a denouement (spoilers: I shall try to be oblique but you may wish to look away for this paragraph if you haven’t seen the film) which can certainly be read ambiguously, with a shining light that suggests transcendence. Whatever the physical outcome for the character, the ending at the very least offers salvation, and that final image implies that this is what the protagonist has been looking for. It’s a curiously uplifting final scene. In retrospect, it’s clear that it doesn’t really matter what the specifics are of the protagonist’s failings: his journey is one of repentance matched by a final act of grace. His journey then becomes a form of ascetic denial, perhaps, taking him finally away from all comforts and connections until he is utterly cut off.

In this regard, it’s all a very Christian film about redemption, but in its broad strokes rather than putting across any specific ideology. What can certainly be said is that Robert Redford, being the only actor in the film and on screen for its entire running time, does a fantastic job in what must have been very difficult filming conditions. The lack of dialogue (meaning the lack of verbal explanations for his actions) only sharpens the subtlety of Redford’s acting, as he attends to dealing with his predicament. Of course, part of his success can be attributed to his iconic status within the firmament of motion picture stars, as we can see this character as a sort of version of those golden-haired golden boy characters he once played, but extended into extremis, and his now craggy and lined face conveys its own resonance. With its grand allegorical sweep, All Is Lost is as fine a way as any to see out a year of films.

All Is Lost film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer J.C. Chandor; Cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco; Starring Robert Redford; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Chelsea, London, Thursday 26 December 2013.