A Most Violent Year (2014)
A star-making year
A Most Violent Year has been described as an offshoot of the Godfather pictures, but it’s also first cousin to James Gray’s The Yards with a dash of Sidney Lumet; ultimately it transcends this tradition in its own way. It’s hushed and intense, less high powered than these forebears, pared down and austere and, for a thriller, a little remote. If it’s an epic, and it may be, it’s a piece of a quiet one. Despite bursts of violence throughout that seem quite real, it’s as much psychological and moral portrait as thriller. It’s not so much about crime as about a struggle to steer clear of crime against all odds. The portrait is of the man engaged in this struggle. Whether he succeeds is uncertain but he tries very hard. A sense of danger is well established at the outset, and the tension persists right to the end. I felt like I was holding my breath from start to finish, the same feeling I had with Chandor’s previous All Is Lost, but less intensely. Central to the film is its widescreen look, sometimes pale and sometimes murky or chiaroscuro, achieved by the talented dp Bradford Young, shooting a wintry, un-gentrified early Eighties New York that’s chilly and snowed-upon. With this movie, for the third time Chandor asserts his command as a classic American filmmaker.
This film is good and more original than it may seem, partly in being so driven and so singularly un-fun. Chandor’s justifiably acclaimed first two films, Margin Call and All Is Lost, each in different ways dealt with magnates in extremis. This is a reversal. David Denby calls this film “an anti-‘Godfather’.” It’s about a magnate in the making, one who has his own unique knight in shining armour style. The armour worn is a double breasted Armani suit topped off with a camel hair overcoat.
Most Violent Year is also a star-making role for the wearer of the overcoat: Oscar Isaac, who recently emerged from minor roles to become a headliner. He got plenty of attention with Inside Llewyn Davis and showed how sexy and mysterious he could be in The Two Faces of January but he totally owns A Most Violent Year, dominating every scene. Isaac plays Abel Morales, a Colombian-born businessman who worked his way up from driving a truck for an oil delivery company based in Greenpoint, Queens, to owning the company and living in a modern mansion in Connecticut. But now he has to fight to keep rivals from attacking and terrorising his drivers and intimidating him. He must ward off an overzealous district attorney (David Oyelowo) from indicting him and his company for multiple crimes. And he must raise $1.5 million however he can after being “jilted at the altar” by the bank, to buy property essential to the market dominance of his company. This most violent year has become a most tense time.
This is vintage 1981 New York City, menacing, messy, dangerous, and unlawful. Abel’s competitors are completely unscrupulous. It could be any one of them who is attacking his drivers, seizing the trucks, and stealing the oil. Abel himself is very nearly married to the mob. His loyal, tough wife Anna (a thin, ruby-lipsticked, blonde-wigged Jessica Chastain, excellent and unrecognisable) is the daughter of a gangster. Se has inherited gangsterish tendencies. And it’s she who’s in charge of the books — or of cooking them. Abel wants to do everything “the right way.” That’s the toughest choice he could make.
In a New Yorker article last year, “The Crooked Ladder,” Malcolm Gladwell argued that American immigrants who have risen fast from the bottom have often done so initially through lives of crime, levelling off into honest business once they’d been established and built up wealth. Whether or not this is true, it defines what Abel is avoiding and what the violent, venial, mob-dominated world of Eighties New York tries to foist upon him.
Abel is on the verge of buying a large tract of river land adjacent to his company from a grey-bearded Orthodox Jewish garment district magnate. This will allow him more volume and access to oil deliveries from everywhere. We see him make a sub-rosa cash down payment deal with the Jewish owner, who has no idea what the value of this land is but gives Abel thirty days to pay the rest, or will keep the down payment and sell the property to Abel’s rivals.
The year 1981 literally was the “most violent” in the city’s history, with an extraordinary number of robberies and murders. In an early scene, Abel Morales asks a city official, Lawrence (Oyelowo) to do something about the attacks on his drivers, and Lawrence replies that he has more serious problems to deal with — and moreover, he is working up a series of charges against Abel’s company. Every day Abel’s lucky just to survive, and Isaac ceaselessly projects his character’s absolute focus on doing so — with grace. There’s a kind of inner silence about Abel, given an objective correlative when he tells fledgling salespeople to stare into prospective customer’s eyes “longer than is comfortable.” That is what he can do, and he never raises his voice or loses his cool. But because he doesn’t want to arm the drivers or let his wife carry a weapon she calls him a “pussy.
He clearly isn’t, best shown when he drives his Mercedes in a breathless chase after one of his oil trucks that’s been hijacked. He follows it into a tunnel of darkness that feels like hell itself, and then pursues the fleeing hijacker onto a period recreation of a graffiti-covered subway car and jumps him as he escapes. It’s an action sequence that’s classic yet distinctive.
Abel goes looking for his terrorised runaway driver Julian (Elyes Gabel) to his house, where he has a conversation with Julian’s sister (Catalina Sandino Moreno of Maria Full of Grace), perhaps designed mainly to establish that Abel (and Isaac) is a Spanish speaker. As Chandor has written the film its main events tend to seem more spotty and emblematic than interconnected progressions within a coherent narrative. Though a right hand man and a suave rival are well played by Albert Brooks and Alessandro Nivola their parts, like Oyelowo’s, seem a bit underdeveloped. Such is the price of Isaac’s intensity in every scene and the crackle of his scenes with Chastain.
There is great stuff here, with a subtle but rich sense of time and place, and if not everything works equally well it’s worth it to look into Isaac’s calm, hypnotic glare and hear his soothing but relentless voice.
STARS: OSCAR ISAAC, JESSICA CHASTAIN, ALBERT BROOKS, ALESSANDRO NIVOLA
RUNTIME: 125 MINS