Director: J.C. Chandor
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Albert Brooks, David Oyelowo, Elyes Gabel
A Most Violent Year is the third film from writer-director J.C. Chandor, after Margin Call and All is Lost. While he doesn’t enjoy a high profile, Chandor has built himself an impressive body of work as one of those rare beasts: a filmmaker who makes movies for grownups.
Abel Morales and his wife Anna run an up-and-coming heating oil company, but find themselves in a crisis. Someone is hijacking their trucks. Drivers are being beaten, trucks taken and dumped with their contents stolen. The loss in revenue is building and the drivers are scared to go to work. The teamsters union is demanding Abel arm his drivers, but he fears escalation. Simultaneously, after a two year investigating into corruption in the heating oil industry the District Attorney is ready to start laying charges, including 14 against Abel’s company. All of this could not be happening at a worse time, as Abel has committed to an important property deal. He has put down a 40% deposit, everything he has, on a waterfront oil holding facility which will give them direct access to the oil tankers and the potential for dramatic growth. He has one month to produce the rest of the money, but between the violence and the pending investigation, the bank that is backing him is starting to get jittery.
The gangster film has always been, in a way, connected to capitalism and the idea of the American Dream, the self-made man. While A Most Violent Year is not a straight gangster movie, it has many of the characteristics of that genre. We learn that Abel started out as a lowly truck driver himself before building up the money to purchase the small company from his father-in-law, a Brooklyn mobster. Under his determined leadership the company has grown into an important player, and the pending real estate deal has the potential to turn it into the industry leader, but he has ruffled the feathers of those more established competitors, ‘family’ businesses in both senses of the word.
Abel is a very controlled character, played with great stoicism by Oscar Isaac. A man of vision and optimism in a challenging time, he wants to build his company. There is a great scene, reminiscent of something from David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, in which Abel teaches some new recruits how to sell. Hold eye contact for longer than is comfortable. Always take the fancier option. “We’re never going to be the cheapest, so we have to be the best.” But there is something bubbling below the surface. He can be harsh. He can intimidate. He is trying to operate with integrity in a corrupt industry. “I’ve spent my whole life trying not to become a gangster,” he frustratedly exclaims to his wife. As viewers we are waiting for his Michael Corleone moment, that moment when he surrenders the high road that he has been so determined to take and resigns himself to becoming what the situation demands he be. But Abel’s conviction is strong indeed.
Chandor’s screenplay resists the temptation to make everything clear for the audience. We do not know how clean Abel’s company really is? We suspect that he believes it is, but we also know that corruption charges are being brought against them and there is something they are trying to hide. We see that Anna is the one looking after the books and, being a mobster’s daughter, she has more flexible ideas about what is right and wrong. She assures Abel that ‘we follow industry standard practice’ but he never asks just what standard practice is in a corrupt industry.
Anna, played brilliantly by Jessica Chastain (who I think was unlucky not to get an Oscar nomination), is the film’s most intriguing character. A supportive wife and a dutiful clerk to the outside world, she is as driven as he is and we get the sense that she is exerting more influence over this company than even Abel might realise. She is willing to let her husband try and do things his way, to take the high road, but her frustration is growing. She recognises gang warfare when she sees it and wants to do whatever it takes to protect what is theirs. Unfortunately, we don’t get enough of this character. You feel like the film is setting up for her moment but it doesn’t eventuate.
There is a slow-burning tension to the film which you expect to ratchet up in the final act but it never quite gets there. With its clever screenplay, detailed period design and exemplary cast, A Most Violent Year is a very good movie which falls just short of being a great one.
Review by Duncan McLean
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