A Most Violent Year (2014)

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours  min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 5; Language 5; Sex/Nudity 2.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

 Do not enter the path of the wicked,     and do not walk in the way of evildoers. Avoid it; do not go on it;     turn away from it and pass on. For they cannot sleep unless they have done wrong;     they are robbed of sleep unless they have made someone stumble. For they eat the bread of wickedness     and drink the wine of violence. But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn,     which shines brighter and brighter until full day.

Proverbs 4:14-18

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Abel and his wife Anna on their way to conclude a lucrative deal for their home heating oil business.                 (c) 2014 A24 Release

In  1981 New York City set a record for crimes of violence, robbery, corruption, and the defacement of public property according to statistics. Unfortunately for Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), owner of Standard Oil, a home heating company, it is the year in which he hopes to expand his business and become a major player in a field riddled with ruthless, mob-connected competitors. The film opens with Abel, his gorgeous but tough wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), and loyal lawyer/advisor Andrew (Albert Brooks) getting out of their cars and the men entering an old trailer for a business meeting. The bearded men inside are Hasidim who own a parcel of riverfront property, hence Anna’s waiting outside. The Hasidim have agreed to sell to Abel rather than any of the rival bidders. The property contains a large fuel-tank facility enabling him to receive fuel oil directly from ships and store large quantities lasting through winter, a time when prices are much higher. However the terms of the contract are harsh. He must come up with the remaining 60% owed on the million dollar plus property within 30 days or he will lose his deposit. Abel is confident he can raise the extra capital because he has had a long-standing relationship with his banker.

However, it quickly becomes clear that there will be problems. On that very day another of his trucks is highjacked and the young driver beaten so badly that he is hospitalized. Persons unknown have been stealing his oil for some time, and the hijackings continue so that his men and the head of the teamsters’ union are demanding that the drivers be armed. Abel is adamant that they do not do so, because he believes that the resultant violence will make matters worse.

Part of Abel’s resistance to guns is inherent in his nature, but he also is concerned that their use would complicate his legal problems. Assistant District Attorney (David Oyelowo) has been preparing a report on corruption in the home heating oil industry, and it is likely that Abel will be among the leaders indicted. He strongly believes that he has always conducted his business affairs rightly, but he did work his way up from truck driver to marrying the boss’s daughter to salesman, after which he bought the company from Anna’s father, known to be a Mafia member. She as CFO of the company has been keeping two sets of books for the company. Imbued with her father’s values, she argues that the drivers be armed, especially pressing this when Abel chases off a night prowler. The next day their little daughter finds in the bushes the gun the thug had dropped, which really sets Anna off. She starts carrying a small gun herself.

The embattled Abel seems to have hit a brick wall when an indictment is handed down, causing his banker to withdraw his promise of a loan. At this point Abel seems to be a bit like Job or the author of Proverbs, a man of integrity standing alone against an unrighteous world. I write “a bit like” because Abel could be deceiving himself somewhat concerning his own righteousness—before owning the company he did for a man with Mafia connections. Nonetheless, he believes there is an ethical line he will not cross. But then he is pushed up against the wall when he discovers a thug driving one of his stolen trucks. A wild, careening chase leads through a very symbolic dark tunnel. When he catches up with the thief on the other side…

The suspense and the starkness of choices facing this man keep us riveted to the screen. Director/writer J.C. Chandor was superb in probing the psychological aspects of one man against Nature in All Is Lost. Now he shows us a man up against human forces, that of a ruthless competitor and the assistant district attorney. In most action films, such as Liam Neeson’s Taken series, we know that the main character will win out because he has such superb skills (fighting, keen perception, and in superhero stories, superhuman powers), but that is not the case here. The suspense is real. Abel is, as we see in one scene, an “able” salesman, teaching his small sales staff how to play the husbands and wife they are sent to persuade to switch to Standard, but otherwise he is an ordinary man thrust into extraordinary circumstances. The circumstances by which we see him beset call into question the Biblical concept of a righteous universe. The Theodore Parker inspired words of Martin Luther King, Jr. might be true–“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”—but in Abel’s case we would like to see that arc a bit shorter.

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the March 2014 issue of Visual Parables.

 

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Rated R. Running time: 3 hours

Our Advisories(1-10): Violence 2; Language 7; Sex/Nudity 9

Our star rating (1-5): 3

  And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips,slanderers, God-haters,insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious towards parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them.

Romans 1:28-32

Speech

Jordan Belfort is a master at arrousing his employees to become as ravenous as wolves in closing a penny stock sale.
(c) 2013 Paramount Pictures

Based on real life Jordan Belfort, the main character of this Wall Street tale of greed certainly is a predator. Isaiah the prophet wrote, “The wolf shall live with the lamb,” but Belfort is not ever likely to live with lambs in the harmony envisioned by the prophet. He has divided people into two categories, clever wolves and naive victims deserving to be fleeced.

Serving as narrator, Belfort says with a swagger in his voice, “My name is Jordan Belfort. The year I turned 26, I made 49 million dollars, which really pissed me off because it was three shy of a million a week.” This wolf is better described by the apostle Paul in the opening chapter of his Letter to the Romans than by the ancient prophet. As you will see at the end of the film, this is not a character transformation film, but rather a report from the front lines of the cynicism, greed, and debauchery that constitutes so much of the life of wealthy America today.

Jordan Belfort, skillfully, so exuberantly, played by Leonardo De Caprio, makes Gordon Gekko seem like Francis of Assisi, so engulfed in the lustful life is he. “Greed is good” has been replaced in his life by “Greed is God.” He starts out at a high end Manhattan trading firm as “a connector,” the initial caller to prospective buyers on a list. Top broker Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), becoming his mentor, teaches him during a long lunch hour at a fancy restaurant, that he is not to work for the customer but for himself—he is not to serve the clients’ interest but to extract as much money from them as possible and then move on to the next sucker. He concludes the session by rhythmically beating his fist against his chest while chanting, as if he were some gorilla celebrating a victory in the jungle. Later, when he has formed his own wildly successful penny stock boiler room named Stratton Oakmont, he gets a whole room full of greedy employees to perform this victory ritual, which made me think that the film might just as easily have been called The Gorilla of Wall Street.

I won’t further describe the plot except to say that later, when the incorruptible FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler), whom Belfort has so taunted and insulted, is closing the noose on him, forcing him to wear a wire to implicate all those working with him, he does show one shred of decency by silently warning his chief acolyte Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) not to say anything that would incriminate him. But that is it, as we see him next giving a powerful pep talk to his employees: so charismatic is he in creating an atmosphere of group think and acting that they burst forth in wild dancing, cheers, and praise, not knowing that soon most of them will be arrested and charged with financial crimes based on evidence supplied by their supposed benefactor.

Director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Terrence Winter make no judgments about Belfort and his greedy followers. Judging by the reaction of many in the audience, some approve of his cleverness, laughing at the scenes of excessive sex, drug sniffing, and clever seduction of people gullible enough to believe the wild promises of wealth from a stranger calling them on their telephone. (And also look at the large number of Americans calling themselves Christian who petitioned A&E to restore to their popular show the homophobe and racist they had dropped!)

Long gone are the days of the old Hayes office when the gangster films of the time were required to show that “crime does not pay.” Our anti-hero in this film is sentenced to four years for security fraud, but have you seen the palatial prison quarters that he and others of the ruling class are sent to? Our’s is a society in which even in prison wealth and power rule. Out in almost half the sentenced time, Belfort is barred from a career in financial wheeling/dealing, but he is still raking in money as a motivational speaker. For more on this and a link to an interesting article on Belfort’s numerous victims “”Investors’ Story Left Out of Wall Street Movie,” go to Spirituality and Practice. (at http://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/films/films.php?”id=25760) Indeed, if you are not familiar with Mary Ann and Frederic Brussat’s invaluable film and literature website, I encourage you to bookmark it for frequent reference: harking back to the days when church leaders judged “godless movies” from a moralistic standpoint, they are pioneers in seeing film through the lens of spirituality

There are so many scenes of full nudity and sexual intercourse, of cocaine snuffing, and gutter language that it is doubtful that a church leader would use the film in a group. Perhaps the sickest scene is not of expensive call girls engaging in group sex, but the one in which tBelfort and his employess lift up a helmeted dwarf and toss him at a large target, those hitting the bullseye receiving a reward.  Therefore the few questions that I’ll append in the journal will be more for reflection than discussion. That it is regarded by so many as a comedy is a reflection on our cynical society, especially if we think of comedy in the classical tradition of “all’s well that ends well.” Tell that to the thousands of victims who lost to Belfort more than $100 million dollars, money that most of them could not afford to lose. If you want to see a film in which a Belfort-like character is transformed, then be sure to see the excellent father-son film The Boiler Room or Wall Street itself. In the meantime, I am hoping that this film is not embraced by those voting on the ten films to be included in the list of Best Picture Oscar contenders. The cast is so persuasive in this over the top three-hour immersion in greed and corruption that such an endorsement might mislead more viewers into thinking that greed is indeed the best way to achieve the American Dream.

The full review with a set of 10 questions for reflection or discussion is in the January 2014 issue of Visual Parables. If you are not a subscriber and plan to discuss this film with a group, go to The Store to buy either the single issue or for a year’s subscription.