"Everything is as it should be."

                                                                                  - Benjamin Purcell Morris

 

 

© all material on this website is written by Michael McCaffrey, is copyrighted, and may not be republished without consent

Birds of Passage: A Review

MV5BMjUxODM5ODUyM15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzA3Nzg3NjM@._V1_.jpg

****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT. A unique and original take on the drug lord narrative that is heightened by its setting among an indigenous tribe in Columbia.

Language: Spanish, Wayuu, Wiwa - With English Subtitles.

Birds of Passage, written by Maria Camilla Arias and Jacque Toulemonde Vidal and directed by Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego, is a story that chronicles the rise of an indigenous Wayuu family who are key players in the birth of the illegal drug business in Columbia from the 1960’s to the 1980’s. The film stars Carmina Martinez and Jose Acosta with supporting turns from Natalia Reyes, Jhon Narvaez and Juan Batista.

Having just recently watched all three seasons of the Netflix show Narcos, which tells the story of Columbian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, I was intrigued to learn more about the origins of the drug business in Columbia. Birds of Passage is a fantastic companion piece to Narcos, as it goes back to the beginning when the drug trade genie was let out of the bottle In Columbia.

Birds of Passage is part biblical fable and part Homeric saga that teaches of the perils of avarice, ambition and the betraying of core familial and tribal traditions. If you mixed the biblical stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel (along with dashes of Noah and Exodus) with The Iliad and The Odyssey, threw in the Prodigal Son and a plague, mixed them all together in a bowl of Jungian and Shamanic dream analysis you’d get the mythic core of Birds of Passage.

Unknown-1.jpeg

The story is structured in the form of a historical epic poem sung to life by one of the tribal word-keepers/historians and is broken into five cantos (songs) that tracks the trials and tribulations of the protagonist family. At the epicenter of the birth Columbian drug trade were the indigenous peoples known as the Wayuu, who are a collection of various large extended families and clans. The Wayuu are culturally shamanic and it is their ancient traditions that kept the peace between the clans and the tribe functioning.

When a prodigal son of the tribe, Rapayet, returns from time away working with the distrusted alijuana (Spanish Columbians) and wants to marry the daughter of the clan’s steely matriarch Ursula, who is against the union, this story takes its first fateful steps.

Birds of Passage is sort of like a Columbian version of The Godfather, except maybe would be better titled The Godmother due to the matriarchal power on display. Rapayet is a Michael Corleone character, bound by traditions and a conservative temperament but surrounded by those who are less controlled and more reactive than he. Ursula is like Don Corleone, a looming presence whose reputation is the real power behind the throne.

The film is also reminiscent of other famous drug lord/crime saga stories like Narcos and Scarface but what sets Birds of Passage apart is the setting of this character arc within the highly structured Wayuu shamanic tradition. As the tag line of the film eloquently and accurately states, “Generations of tradition. Consumed by greed.”

images-3.jpeg

Having spent centuries fighting off other tribes and colonialism, the Wayuu are distrustful of outsiders. This sort of nativism is a survival mechanism and as Ursula continually points out, the Wayuu ignore this tradition at their peril. The drug business is the Trojan horse that invites the outside world into the protected enclave of the Wayuu. The tight circle of trust around the Wayuus even excludes Rapayet, but once he is let in the walls become thinner and it is easier for the alijuana to follow and with them the Americans and all the trouble.

As the film points out, the drug trade is a direct result of America’s fight against communism and its evangelizing of capitalism. Without capitalism and American imperialism, the drug trade never metastasizes, and the drug war never becomes a permanent state.

Birds of Passage is a meditation on capitalism and how, for good or for ill, it is an acid that destroys everything it touches. The futility of the drug war is intentional and that becomes glaringly obvious whenever you watch any film about drug lords because what makes illicit drugs so profitable is the fact that they are illicit. Because the drugs are illegal is also why violence surrounding the sale of them is inevitable.

The film is also a contemplates shamanism, traditionalism, tribalism and the loss of cultural memory. The cost to the Wayuu for the easy money made growing and selling marijuana is for their entire culture to be dashed upon the rocks of American capitalism with their history and sense of self lost forever.

Unknown-6.jpeg

Birds of Passage visually looks terrific and a big part of that is the setting. The region of Columbia where the Wayuu live is part desert and part lush forest so the contrasts of the washed out white of the desert and the lush green of the forests makes for a sumptuous visual feast, as do the wide open expanses. Directors Guerra and Gallego also wisely use a lot of animal symbolism and some cinematically striking dream sequences to further heighten the film’s visual style.

The acting is also solid across the board. Jose Acosta as Rapayet is particularly good going from a brash young man (hunter) to powerful tycoon (hunted) without skipping a beat. Carmina Martinez as Ursula is terrific too, embodying the power of her position with an exacting precision.

Beautifully photographed, well-acted and profoundly insightful, Birds of Passage takes a distinctly original path through the familiar territory of the drug lord narrative. The perilous journey from rags to riches and beyond on display in this film doesn’t just apply to greedy Columbian drug lords, but also to those who created them in the first place…Americans. It seems obvious that, like the Wayuu, America has sold its soul to the highest bidder and will soon enough come to the same end as the Wayuu…victims of their own success and to their own addictive greed.

©2019

2018 Mid-Term Elections

future.png


Ever since Trump was elected president in 2016, the media have declared that he would face a comeuppance in the form of vast Democrat victories, or as they call it, a “blue wave”, come the 2018 mid-term elections. While I would like to think that would happen…I don’t think that will happen.

As long time readers know, I was one of “those people” who, in the face of a cavalcade of opposite opinion in the media and in my social circles, accurately predicted Trump’s victory in 2016. As I said in my writing from that time, I didn’t want Trump to win (nor was I a Hillary supporter), I just thought he would. I ended up being right and we have all had to suffer through the never ending reality show that is Trump TV ever since.

The formula I used to predict Trump’s 2016 victory is my McCaffrey Wave Theory, which again, I am sure long-time readers are sick of hearing about…but what can you do? My wave theory uses, among other things, popular culture, most specifically, at least currently, film and television, as indicators of the mood in the collective unconscious. The formula of the McCaffrey Wave Theory is actually very complex and complicated, and takes into account numerous cultural and historical “waves” or “cycles” that are all simultaneously in motion.

Interpreting the data from these waves/cycles and measuring their relationship to one another is how the McCaffrey Wave Theory is able to “predict” certain turn of events. And to be clear, this is not about being Nostradamus and saying planes will fly into buildings on 9-11, but rather about understanding the ebbs and flows of the collective unconscious and knowing when both big and small shifts will occur when portions of the collective unconscious become conscious.

The key elements of the McCaffrey Wave Theory are the archetypes, narratives and sub-texts prominent in films/tv along with their color scheme and visual/cinematic tendencies. These data points are how my wave/cycle theory is able to discern which films and/or television shows are leading indicators and which are lagging indicators of the collective unconscious. Leading indicator films are the ones that express the unconscious desires/fears of the collective, while lagging indicator films are the ones that express conscious fears or desires of the collective.

images-4.jpeg

Some examples of leading indicator film and tv were pretty obvious in 2017 when HULU’s A Handmaid’s Tale (its narrative and vibrant red and green color scheme) and the DC film Wonder Woman (its narrative and red and blue color scheme) jumped to the fore of our culture in the early summer. These two successful projects accurately foretold of the coming feminist outcry and the rise of the #MeToo movement in the wake of the Weinstein revelations that came out in October of 2017.

A good example of a lagging indicator film was in 2017 as well, when Steven Spielberg rushed into production his thinly veiled anti-Trump/pro-Hillary film, The Post, that underwhelmed both at the box office and come awards time. The Post failed both artistically and financially because it was little more than wish fulfillment that attempted to give the audience what it wanted, not what the collective sub-conscious needed.

In the years leading up to the rise of Trump in 2016, there were numerous films and television shows that were ominous signs of a very dark impulse coming to the fore in American life and across the globe.

Unknown-1.jpeg

Two glaring examples were HBO’s Game of Thrones with its marketing campaign which for years was warning us all with their ice-blue billboards proclaiming that “Winter is Coming”. The other was Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, a show about what America would be like if the Nazi’s and Japanese won World War II, which hit the airwaves in 2015 accompanied by a prodigious marketing campaign which had the Nazi Eagle on the American flag and the Imperial Japanese flag plastered all over the New York subway and elsewhere. Both of those shows resonated within the culture because they accurately gave voice to what was lurking in our collective unconscious. On some level we knew what was coming…a horrible “winter” and the Nazi’s/Not Sees…and these shows knew it before we were even conscious of it. (and don’t kid yourself, the Nazi/Not See impulse is not solely of the right, the left has a strong Not See impulse too).

Unknown-6.jpeg

In 2015 there were many films that were also giving us warning signs of big trouble ahead. The Martian, The Hateful Eight, The Revenant and Star Wars: The Force Awakens were all through their narratives, color schemes (Martian - Red, Hateful 8 - Blue, Revenant - Blue, Star Wars - Red and Blue) and cinematic visuals (shots of foreboding vast expanses) the equivalent of a flashing red sign that a gigantic storm was coming.

In 2016 things got even clearer, as the blockbusters Captain America: Civil War, X-Men: Apocalypse, Deadpool, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and even La La Land all revealed through their narratives (internecine warfare), sub-text and color schemes (all of them with vibrant clashes of red and blue) that our cultural train was headed off the track if not the cliff.

images-5.jpeg

As I have previously written, last year cinema gave us some signs of what to expect going forward. The big archetype of the year in 2017 was Winston Churchill…with the films Dunkirk, Darkest Hour and the Netflix show The Crown. The Churchill archetype can be interpreted in numerous ways, but when seen in conjunction with other wave/cycles, it strikes me that the Churchill archetype is manifesting in the Trump’s of the world…in other words…it is actually the Churchill shadow archetype that is taking center stage.

Which brings us to this year and the mid-terms. As I said, there has been incessant talk of a blue wave and in its jubilant wake the possibility of a Democratic House and maybe even Senate where, like a scene out of The Godfather where Michael settles all family business, liberals exact revenge by impeaching not only of Trump but Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh. As entertaining as that liberal porn may be…I don’t think it is going to happen.

According to my wave theory, there will be no blue wave. Not only will the Democrats not win the Senate, I don’t think they will win the House either, and if they do it will be by the skin of their teeth. Now…before you stick your head in the oven…to be very, very clear…I could certainly be wrong about this, God knows it wouldn’t be the first time. For starters, I have never used my wave theory to predict a mid-term before, and it could be I am interpreting the data entirely incorrectly, this is a distinct possibility. But with that said, ever since last June, when I wrote a piece for CounterPunch on the topic, along with a follow up posting on this blog in July, I have thought that this blue wave was a mirage.

As I stated in my CounterPunch piece, the big warning signs for me were the prominence and success of both Deadpool 2 and Avengers: Infinity War, both of which had narratives, sub-text and color scheme that spoke clearly of the failure of the opposition to Trump to succeed in toppling him.

Unknown-7.jpeg

Other films, such as A Quiet Place, Hereditary and even A Star is Born, that have all resonated deeply within the culture this year, are also leading indicators of a Democratic failure come the mid-terms because of their narratives and sub-text. Believe it or not, A Star is Born is remarkably insightful sub-textually and that sub-text very clearly (once you crack the code of it) states that if not Trump, then at least Trumpism, is here to stay as a replacement for the old paradigm, as indicated by the song in the film “Maybe it’s time we let the old ways die”. (I hope to have a full analysis of A Star is Born done soon).

Just as importantly, there are lagging indicator films that are, just like Spielberg’s The Post in 2017, falling flat, which highlight what isn’t resonating in the collective unconscious. Films with similar narratives, like the “aggrieved and under-appreciated genius wife/power behind the throne” stories of The Wife and Colette, or the “police shooting/racism” films The Hate U Give, Monsters and Men and Blindspotting, have all fallen flat in the broader culture. Even the colossal failure of the cinematic celebration of multi-culturalism and female empowerment, A Wrinkle in Time, is telling us what is going on in our collective unconscious, and it isn’t good news.

Now…maybe I am dead wrong about all this…maybe I am misreading and misinterpreting the data, that is a distinct possibility. Maybe the Democrats win a huge majority in the House and even get one in the Senate…but neither of those things will lead to a return to “normal”…only an escalation of the clash for civilization that is currently taking place.

Even if Democrats win, the intensity of the political turmoil here in America will not recede but proceed at an even quicker pace. Two more years of impeachment talk and congressional hearings will only heighten the tensions that are already near a boil. If you thought Trump was awful these last two years, wait until he faces an existential threat to his presidency from a Democratically controlled House and possibly Senate.

Unknown-8.jpeg

On the other hand, if, as I have been predicting since June, there is not blue wave, don’t expect tensions to lessen. If Democrats fail to gain the House, Trump will turn his obnoxiousness up to 11 and liberals and the media will ratchet up the crazy to unseen heights. And on top of that, if Mueller ends his investigation with no bombshells or smoking gun of “Russian collusion”, the liberal and Democratic meltdown will make Chernobyl look like a cookout.

In other words…no matter the outcome on November 6th, the conflagration that is American politics will only grow bigger, hotter and much more dangerous.

The reality is that there is no stopping the collapse of the institutions of western civilizations. Trust me, we have a very, very bumpy road ahead. That means more authoritarianism across the globe (Bolsonaro will win in Brazil) and more shocks to the system, like economic earthquakes, natural disasters and war.

The good news is that this current wave/cycle of collapse and destruction will not last forever. Eventually, after maybe a decade or so (or God help us a decade or two), this collapse and destruction wave/cycle will transform into a more optimistic wave/cycle of growth, stability, relative peace and prosperity. Remember, destruction is the first act of creation, and we will create, hopefully, a more just, localized, thoughtful and sustainable civilization in the crater where this one once stood.

As for the bad news…we are still in the destruction phase…and come November 7th there are going to be a lot of really pissed off Democrats, liberals and anti-Trumpers, who will still have no power in Washington with which to vent their rage. And if you thought things have been bad the last two years, what ‘til you get a load of what comes next because you ain’t seen nothing yet.


©2018

Hell or High Water : A Review

****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!!****

Estimated Reading Time : 5 Minutes 14 Seconds

My rating : 4.5 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation : See it in the Theatre!! Go See it Now!!

"THE DAYS WHEN YOU COULD ROB BANKS AND LIVE OFF THE MONEY ARE LONG GONE"

Hell or High Water, written by Taylor Sheridan and directed by David MacKenzie, is the story of Toby and Tanner Howard, two native sons of Texas who go on a bank robbing spree. The film stars Chris Pine and Ben Foster as the Tanner brothers and Academy Award winner Jeff Bridges as the Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton who is hot on their trail.

The acting, the writing and the directing in Hell or High Water is impeccable. Taylor Sheridan who wrote the script, also wrote last years Sicario, and is quickly becoming a master screenwriter. His dialogue is crisp and his action and storytelling vibrant and vivid. The very basic story of Hell or High Water is that of bank robbers, but Sheridan puts an original and unique twist onto that narrative and uses it to tell an intriguing story with deeper truths sprinkled throughout his multilayered script.

Director Mackenzie uses a deft touch to allow the film and his actors room to breath, and he uses the vast Texas landscape to enhance his visual storytelling. Mackenzie's pacing and fluid camera work add an extra dimension to the story that help it blossom. Mackenzie's other great achievement is his obvious insightful work with his actors. While Ben Foster, Chris Pine and Jeff Bridges are accomplished actors who may not need all that much direction, Mackenzie's work with the supporting and smaller roles is evident and excellent. There are local hires in this film, I am thinking of an older man in a diner, and an old waitress in another diner, who are so great in their scenes it filled me with a beaming joy. After having suffered through the atrocity of acting in Sully, seeing the exquisite work of the actors in smaller roles in Hell or High Water gave me faith once again in the craft and skill of not only acting but of directing. I thank Mr. Mackenzie for that and for his dedication to his job and the specificity of his work.

As for the main characters, all three actors are outstanding. Ben Foster is an often over looked actor, but he is among the best we have working today. Foster's Tanner vibrates with a palpable chaotic energy and unpredictability that is mesmerizing. Chris Pine's Toby is more subdued than his brother, but carries a cross of melancholy throughout life that permeates his every move. In my eyes, Pine was little more than a pretty boy movie star before this, but after seeing his work in Hell or High Water, I am excited to see where his career can go from here. And finally Jeff Bridges, who is one of the great actors of our time, turns in another stellar performance. Bridges' Texas Ranger is funny, bordering on cruel, a man desperate to connect and feel again but who is completely ill-equipped to do so. But when we see rare glimpses of Ranger Hamilton's true self and heart, they are utterly captivating. There is one heart breaking sequence where Bridges goes from a subdued guttural cry to a ferocious and fierce determination that could melt steel. Bridges is a joy to behold on screen, and his work in Hell or High Water is more proof of his professional and artistic mastery.

Finally, a special mention for Gil Birmingham who plays Bridges' Texas Ranger partner Alberto Parker. Birmingham takes a role that in the hands of a lesser actor could have been just a caricature, and creates a truly magnificent character of depth, life and feeling. Birmingham's Parker takes much abuse from his partner Hamilton, and while he wishes that abuse would roll off his back in all good fun, it doesn't. Birmingham creates a wall which Parker hides behind in order to function in the world of the Texas Rangers, and is smart enough to let the audience get glimpses of who Parker really is behind that wall which makes him a distinct and genuine character that lights up the screen.

"I'VE BEEN SITTING HERE LONG ENOUGH TO WATCH THAT BANK BEEN ROBBING ME FOR THIRTY YEARS GET ROBBED" - OLD MAN IN DINER

I had not heard much about Hell or High Water before seeing it. It is one of those films that sort of flies under the radar in our very cluttered popular culture. I went to see it because a friend of mine, Mr. Ben AKA The Oklahoma Kid, had recommended it to me. He is usually spot on when it comes to film, so on his advice I made the trek to the theatre to check it out. And boy, am I ever glad I did. Hell or High Water is a truly magnificent film, one of the best of the year. After seeing it I tried to describe my feelings for the film to a friend of mine, I told her that Hell or High Water is the type of film for which cinema was invented. The film tells its story on multiple, complex levels, and most importantly it also tells the truth. There is no Sully-esque fairy tale or wish fulfillment here. The lesson of Hell or High Water is that the American Dream is a lie. On top of that it makes the subtle yet effective argument that America itself was founded upon a lie and built upon the slaughter of native people and the theft of their land, and the karma of that theft reverberates to this day. Hell or High Water shows us that the exploitation that built this country has moved from the native population to the nativist population. Hell or High Water is damning evidence that American capitalism has now become a cancer that is devouring its host, and will continue to do so until its death. 

The Howard brothers learn quickly that the only way to succeed in the rigged game of American capitalism is to cheat. And if you have to hold a gun to somebody's head just to get a place at the table, then you do it….that is the true American way. The Howard brothers are like millions of Americans who have been sold a bill of goods and were and will be again, left holding the bag when the house of cards tumbles. The Howard brothers are the type of men who fight our wars overseas only to come back home to be "thanked for their service" by self-satisfying American sycophants but ignored for their true sacrifice and their desperate needs. The Howard's, like most Americans, live in a country where opportunity is for the few and despair for the many. The Howard's, unlike most Americans, are smart enough to realize that the real enemy is not outside our borders in Iraq, or Syria or Russia, but right here at home on Wall Street and in Washington.

"BOY, YOU'D THINK THERE WERE TEN OF ME" - TANNER HOWARD

The Howard's are also throwbacks to a time when real men existed in this country, not the faux men who roam our land now, with their big pick up trucks, belt buckles and cowboy hats, the Chris Kyle worshipers who carry weapons but lack the courage and wisdom to know against whom to use them. These faux men are good government bullshitters who wave their flag and pledge their allegiance to the lie that is killing them. And when Tanner Howard walks down the middle of the street with guns a-blazin, these "real" men, who greatly outnumber him and out gun him, turn tail and run, because they know that in the face of a real man, of true masculinity, the American male of today stands no chance. 

Hell or High Water is about the loss of that true American masculinity. The Howard brothers are the last of the dinosaurs roaming the Texas plains. The outlaw, the true individualist, who would stand up to power, not be its slave, are long gone. America has become a nation of cowards because all the real men have been neutered…by government, by culture, by greed, by fear, by generational incompetence. The younger generations have grown up not knowing what a real man is, so they drive their lime green muscle cars and play their hip-hop and wave their pistols in an attempt to emulate what they think a real man is, all the while the real man rides his white stallion in the background without a sound and barely a notice, and uses his fists to beat the shit out of those posing at being real men.

"THESE BOYS IS ON THEIR OWN" - TEXAS RANGER MARCUS HAMILTON

There is a scene in Hell or High Water where a bunch of ranchers drive their cattle across the road to escape a brush fire. From atop his horse the rancher says to Bridges' Ranger, "My kids won't do this job!". As Bridges drives away he says to his partner, "These boys is on their own." They are on their own, for they are the last of their kind, driven to extinction by events beyond their control. The real men, like the Howards or that cattle driving cowboy, know that America's true enemy is from within, it is the banks that started that brushfire that will drive us off our lands, just like we drove the Comanche off of this same land a hundred and fifty years before. The flag waving dipshits, the Chris Kyles, the good government bullshitters, they are already dead and they are too stupid to even know it yet. These faux men, these impotent American males worship an idol, America, that cares not for them except to feed upon their naiveté and idiocy. That brushfire sweeping the Texas plain already destroyed the uber-masculine culture of the Comanche, and now it will grow and spread and leave behind it a scorched earth of American masculinity that will never grow back.

That's the real problem with guns in this country, not that guns are dangerous in and of themselves, but that there are no real men left to carry them. The men of this nation are simply children grown large who have had no true men to raise and guide them, and that is why there is so much gun violence today. The people with guns aren't man enough to know when, how and on whom to use them. That goes for the gang banger, the cowboy, the soldier and the cop alike, none of which are real men, that is why they shoot unarmed men and deer…because unarmed men and deer don't shoot back. That is why we fight wars against countries that can't fight back, and still can't win them. When Tanner Howard brazenly walks down the street and shoots back at the pick-up truck contingent, those cowards tuck tail and head for the hills as fast as they can, because Tanner is worth ten of those neutered half-men. 

I have a theory of masculinity that most film lovers will understand. It goes like this…most men of today think of themselves as one of the Corleone family from The Godfather. Of the Corleone brothers, Sonny, Fredo, Michael and Tom Hagan, most men think they are either Sonny or Michael. Sonny, the hot tempered tough guy and ladies man, or Michael, the cool, calm, unflappable leader. In Hell or High Water, Tanner is Sonny and Toby is Michael. In reality most men of today are delusional and are neither Sonny nor Michael. The one's who think they are Sonny are really Fredo, and the ones who think they are Michael are really Tom Hagan. And this is where we find ourselves at this time in the history of the American male…we are a nation of Fredo's, incompetent cowards who are afraid of our own shadow…psychologically speaking I absolutely mean that literally. Occasionally we run into a Tom Hagan and confuse him as being a Michael because we haven't seen a real Michael in many decades. The man we think is a Michael isn't a Michael, he is a Tom, more an errand boy for those in power than real a man who should wield power. The days of the American male as Sonny and Michael are long gone, for now we live in the age of Fredo. What proof do I have of this? Look at our two Presidential nominees…who are you voting for? Fredo or Tom? You get what you pay for…and our bill has come due.

"ONLY ASSHOLES DRINK MR. PIBB" - TANNER HOWARD

Hell or High Water is the epitaph of the real American man. Go see it as it is a fantastic film. It is well worth your hard earned dollars and your sparse free time. Go see it and see the last of a dying breed, the Real American Man, because soon enough the only place you will be able to see one is on a movie screen.

©2016

 

A Most Violent Year : A Review

****WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS!! THIS IS YOUR OFFICIAL SPOILER REVIEW!!****

A Most Violent Year, written and directed by J.C. Chandor, is a story of corruption amidst the home heating oil business in and around New York City in 1981, one of the most violent years in the city's history. The protagonists for the film are Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), an immigrant who has lived the American dream and built up a home heating oil company, and his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), whose father sold Abel the home heating business he now owns, and who also had some shady organized crime connections.

Due to the great talents involved in the making of this film, with J.C. Chandor directing and Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac starring, I was really looking forward to seeing A Most Violent Year. Unfortunately, I was mightily disappointed once I saw it. The main problem with this film is not the acting, or the directing, but rather with the story itself. It is so devoid of any dramatic tension or interest that it feels like the film is perpetually just on the precipice of a dramatic breakthrough or an inciting incident, but that breakthrough or incident never occurs. So we are left just watching things unfold but with no real attachment to the characters or events. The film is dramatically vacant.

Another issue with this film, is that putting 'violent' in the title is so decidedly inaccurate that A Most Violent Year can now be considered one of the most misleading film titles of all time, right alongside The Never Ending Story. The film sets itself up and creates expectations with a title like that. The expectations for viewers are that this is going to be a film about the grittier, darker and nastier aspects of life in the home heating oil business in New York. That expectation is never met, not even in the sense of having Abel avoid the inferno of violence that blazes around him. There isn't really any violence at all, at least not of substance, not to or from Abel or anyone else. There isn't even the true threat of violence, only the possibility of an unspoken threat of a threat of violence.  I am certainly not someone who needs violence and brutality in a film to like it, but what I do need is some drama to drive the story, and violence as a dramatic vehicle was desperately needed here.

In terms of moral decisions and dramatic tension, at the end of the day, Abel is corrupt enough to use illegal money that Anna stole in order to continue his business, but not corrupt enough to use violence. That isn't exactly the most powerful of dramatic choices for a film, nor is it very insightful or informative in terms of giving the film a distinct perspective. This film feels like it is shot just out of range of a much more interesting and better film…like a Goodfellas for example. The film will inevitably, and unfavorably, be compared with Goodfellas. Goodfellas is set in the same time period, has a similar theme, style and relationships, but with a much more interesting story, and oddly enough, is inhabited by more believable people.  A Most Violent Year has compelling actors, and potentially compelling characters, but those characters aren't put into any situations that are remotely compelling.

In terms of the acting, Jessica Chastain is as good an actress as there is on the planet, and her work here is engaging and as always, of high quality, so much so that you ache for the film to be more about her than anyone else. Chastain brings with her a luminosity that radiates through her every moment on screen, as well as a vivid yet subtle skill and craft. The character of Anna seems to be the only character in the entire film who has any 'balls' whatsoever, whether she has to kill a deer or take care of business, she brings a very specific point of view, and makes sure the job gets done. Chastain's Anna is a driving and powerful force to be reckoned with, much like the actress herself and her substantial gifts.  

Oscar Isaac as Abel, doesn't fair quite as well as his co-star. I think one of the major problems with Isaac's performance is not with his obvious talent, but with the script itself. The character of Abel is sort of sold to us as being like Michael Corleone before he gets involved in the family business in The Godfather (Abel even wears a long camel hair coat reminiscent of the one Michael Corleone wears in The Godfather ). But that sort of internal conflict needs a big moment in order for a transformation to take place. A Most Violent Year lacks that dramatic transformation of Abel, he never chooses what life he will live. In order for a true dramatic transformation to occur, the stakes for Abel need to be much higher. It should have been very clear, either choose violence and maintain your business, family and standing in the world, or choose to be a good man and lose everything you worked so hard to get, including your wife and kids. That choice is never clearly proposed in the film and so we get middle of the road choices and lukewarm storytelling. The other thing that The Godfather's Michael Corleone had going for him was that Al Pacino was playing him. Oscar Isaac is a fine actor, but he is not even in the ballpark of an all-time great like Al Pacino. My one thought about Oscar Isaac as an actor, is that I think he isn't quite ready to carry a film like this just yet. That is not to say that he won't be able to at some point, just that he isn't able to do that now. He lacks a certain charisma and power on screen that a role like this demands. He, unlike Chastain (and Pacino), does not have an incandescent inferno raging within him that illuminates his being. He is certainly a very talented guy, no question, but he has an absence of gravitas, which is what a role like Abel so desperately needs. I have no doubt he has many great performances ahead of him, but this is one that was more considerable than he was able to manage at this point in his career. 

In conclusion, A Most Violent Year is a major disappointment, especially considering how much I loved J.C. Chandor's previous two films, All is Lost and and Margin Call. Obviously, I am a huge fan of Chastain's work and thought Isaac was very good in Inside Llewyn Davis. Sadly, in A Most Violent Year, these tremendously gifted pieces didn't come together to make a great, or even good film. With all of that said though, I would classify this film as a noble failure. Noble in that it attempts to be a serious and thoughtful drama, something that is in short supply in cinema these days, and a failure because it needed a much more compelling story and script to take full advantage of the ample talents brought together to make this film.

© 2015

FOR REVIEWS OF OTHER FILMS RELEASED DURING THE HOLIDAY SEASON, PLEASE CLICK ON THESE LINKS TO THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING , WHIPLASH , BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE) , FOXCATCHER , WILD , THE IMITATION GAME , AMERICAN SNIPER , NIGHTCRAWLER , STILL ALICE , INHERENT VICE , SELMA , MR. TURNER , CAKE .