By Stephen Mayne @finalreel thefinalreel.co.uk
After the fast paced economic implosion of Margin Call and the remote terror of All Is Lost, J.C. Chandor’s third feature takes place in a dark and icy New York of 1981. This is a place in which protagonists walk a yellow tinged balancing act between principles and power. In look and feel, A Most Violent Year resembles an old newspaper rediscovered at the bottom of a drawer. A sense of familiarity hangs over it, the content fascinating and distant, steeped in period detail and frayed around the edges.
At the film’s heart is empire building, and it’s a dirty business. Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is in the heating oil trade, running Standard Oil with his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), the daughter of a small time gangster. From low beginnings he’s built up quite a company. On the verge of closing a deal for a port terminal that will place him top of the pack, Abel has to contend with attacks on his staff, the theft of his produce, and an investigation into financial irregularities by the District Attorney (David Oyelowo).
With problems mounting on top of each other, Abel’s refusal to bend the law in an apparently lawless town comes under increasing pressure. He’s driven by a determination to beat all competitors legitimately no matter how dirty everyone else plays. It’s this conflict that chips away at Abel’s world. He strives to stay on the straight and narrow, rejecting calls to arm his employees with illegal guns, and refusing to allow Anna’s mobster relations to help sort out rivals.
Abel’s convictions are not an abstract concept liable to buckle easily when the time comes. In a frightening chase across wasteland and through a train tunnel, he pursues one of the men hijacking his trucks for what seems like hours. Finally, with a gun to the man’s head, his better self prevails.
But it’s not the only time he’ll be tested. Dominating the business world doesn’t come easy, and perhaps can’t come without nudging past a few laws. When the DA lays down his charges, Abel asks Anna, who manages the books, if their company is clean. She tells him they follow all standard industry practices. It doesn’t exactly answer the question.
Abel shouldn’t be mistaken for a weak willed sucker either. He reaches for the purity of the American dream, where an immigrant can achieve greatness through graft alone, but he’s capable of ruthlessness when needed. His refusal to arm employees while insisting on sending trucks out anyway places them all in danger. In another of the film’s infrequent bursts of action, Julian (Elyes Gabel), a young driver who idolises Abel, fights back against hijackers before they all flee the arriving police. Yet Julian’s actions see him cast out by Abel for jeopardising the terminal deal.
Later on, when he finds out what one of his rivals has been complicit in, Abel drives straight over and faces him down with steely calm. In these moments, he’s a mixture of Columbo teasing out the truth and Aguirre drifting recklessly down the river, knowing self-awareness and ambitious madness smashing together.
Chandor isn’t content to simply explore what it takes to live the capitalist dream; he also uses Abel to examine why anyone would want it. The drive he feels is ultimately an insatiable one. When asked by a close associate why he wants to run a corporate giant, Abel has no answer. He doesn’t even understand the question. He lives and breathes expansion without really knowing why.
Abel suits Isaac’s acting style. Or Isaac suits Abel. The two merge together. Striding around in a tan coat, Isaac gives Abel authority even as his control weakens. The best scenes come when his carefully crafted image starts to collapse. A cold encounter with Julian in which he won’t offer solace, and a number of arguments with Anna over their differing approaches to outside threats are the best in the film.
It’s a shame Anna is not given more to do. She’s largely kept in the background, a sparring partner and part confidante who has been robbed of equal billing. Chastain still manages to make much of a thin part. Whether dolling up in revealing dresses to swing business meetings, secretly packing weaponry or taking sole charge of the business accounts, Chastain gives Anna enough to suggest she’s a counterweight to her husband.
Chandor could do with a counterweight of his own. He’s so intent on building a carefully constructed, layered drama that he forgets to add the actual drama. The few scenes that stand out do so partly because everything else is so subdued. Sometimes too much of Abel’s world goes on in his head, and not enough in front of him.
This relentlessly calm approach mutes the emotional impact. When Chandor tries to shake things up, he reaches into the toolbox of classic American gangster films. The plot sways dangerously close to homage at times. The scenes with the DA suffer from this. He’s not given enough time to develop into a character worthy of the cynical impression A Most Violent Year hopes to leave. Like a tourist wandering through the streets of New York guidebook in hand, Chandor wants to hit all the favourites. He does so more reverentially than effectively. The Godfather wafts out the strongest, the comparisons between Michael Corleone and Abel verging on glaring.
A Most Violent Year would have benefited from the chance to develop its own cinematic voice outside the long shadows of the genre. This eagerness to replicate is largely responsible for the reduced emotional impact. Still, Chandor mines strong performances from his leads, and opens up space to highlight the ethical quandaries at the heart of the capitalist dream. This is character study and economic analysis compellingly rolled into one. If Abel teaches one thing about the world of business, it’s this – success isn’t predicated on who you know or even what you know. It’s all about how much dirt you can wade through before it sticks.
On general release from January 23rd.