A Most Violent Year
(MA) Starring: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Albert Brooks, David Oyelowo, Elyes Gabel
Following the little-seen but well-regarded Margin Call and All is Lost, A Most Violent Year is the third film from writer-director J.C. Chandor. While he doesn’t enjoy a high profile, Chandor has built an impressive body of work as one of those rare beasts: a filmmaker who makes movies for grown-ups.
Abel Morales (played by Oscar Isaac) and his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) run an up-and-coming heating oil company, but find themselves in a crisis. Someone is hijacking their trucks. Drivers are being beaten, and trucks dumped with their contents stolen. The loss in revenue is building. Drivers are scared to go to work. The union is demanding Abel arm his drivers, but he fears escalation. Simultaneously, after a two-year investigation into corruption within Abel’s industry, the District Attorney is ready to lay charges. All of this could not be happening at a worse time, as Abel has committed to a big property deal, important for the expansion of his business. He has one month to get the money together but, with the violence as well as corruption charges against Abel’s company, the bank that is backing him is starting to get jittery.
The American gangster film has always been, in a way, connected to capitalism as well as 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 before saving money to purchase the small company from his father-in-law, a Brooklyn mobster. Under Abel’s determined leadership, the company has grown into an important player, and its influence could increase. But he also has ruffled the feathers of more established competitors —‘family’ businesses, in both senses of that word.
Abel is a very controlled character, played with great stoicism by Isaac. A character of vision and optimism in a challenging time. There is a great scene — reminiscent of something from David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross — in which Abel teaches his new recruits how to sell. They should 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 Abel’s 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 Anna. 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, like Michael Corleone in gangster masterpiece The Godfather, Abel will resign himself to becoming what the situation demands he be.
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 he believes it is, but we also know there is something that is trying to be covered up. We see 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.
Played brilliantly by Chastain (who I think was unlucky not to get an Oscar nomination), Anna is the film’s most intriguing character. To the ourside world, she is a supportive wife and dutiful clerk. Anna is as driven as he is and we get the sense 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 Chandor’s latest, which you expect to ratchet up in the final act. It never quite gets there, though. 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.