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

© Warner Bros. Pictures

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.

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.


© A24

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


Inherent Vice (2014) || Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Thursday 5 February 2015 || 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

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Nightcrawler (2014)

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Wednesday 5 November 2014 || My Rating 3 stars good


© Open Road Films

This film, which appears to be largely a family affair (director, producer and editor all hail from the Gilroy family, the first of whom is married to the female lead), is another flourish of retro respect towards the scuzzy lo-fi VHS aesthetics of the 80s, a very literal ‘video nasty’ in many ways, which at certain levels reminds me of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990). It’s a character study of Lou (Jake Gyllenhaal, lean, slick of hair and with a stooped shuffle), a low-life criminal and sociopathic grifter just looking for a career, who stumbles into filming real-life crime footage for breaking news items on cable news. In finding his niche, Lou is at some level just exploiting the already dubious ethics of TV news journalism, though in his own work he pushes at these pretty hard, and it doesn’t take long before he’s breaking police lines and moving bodies for a better shot composition. And yet it’s also a subtly twisted satire on management techniques, as Lou takes on the naïve and desperate Rick (Riz Ahmed) as his assistant, lecturing him on being a good employee and deploying all his online business learning in negotiations first with Rick and then with the TV station and its producer Nina (Rene Russo). There are plenty of laughs in fact, though a lot of them are of the excruciatingly uncomfortable variety, as we recognise the intensity of Lou’s delusional beliefs being played out, an unfettered id wreaking havoc with real-life consequences. All this is shot in an immersively lo-fi digital video format (notably by Robert Elswit, a frequent collaborator with Paul Thomas Anderson, and who has in the past inveighed against digital), which gives it all an extra level of discomfiting presence. Ultimately, how the viewer responds is likely to be related to their tolerance for these techniques, not a million miles from the morality plays of Michael Haneke if (thankfully) lacking some of the more acute skewering of audience complicity. It’s certainly a strong directorial effort for Gilroy, and a fine performance for Gyllenhaal.


CREDITS || Director/Writer Dan Gilroy | Cinematographer Robert Elswit | Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed, Rene Russo | Length 117 minutes