A Most Violent Year
(SPOILERS) A most misleading title, such that one might expect this to be the tale of a hoodlum doing hoodlum-type things. It’s closer to the anti-that, as Oscar Isaac’s ‘80s entrepreneur, working in a corrupt business but avoiding mobster tactics, finds his resources and nerves tested when all around beginning applying pressure. J. C. Chandor’s film is an immaculately crafted piece, one that slowly ratchets up the pressure while ensuring you’re never quite sure direction its going to head in next.
One of Chandor’s achievements here is fashioning a protagonist whom we initially believe is self-assured and in control, but is actually nothing of the sort. While Abel Morales (Isaac), is right to assert that arming his oil delivery men (who are being regularly hijacked) will only bring down further trouble, and pressure from Assistant District Attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo), who is investigating him for, amongst other things, tax evasion and price fixing, the solutions to his problems (most pressing being securing a loan to buy a piece of property when his bank falls through) come through others with more steel and resolve than he. And crucially, it is his way that leads to the film’s singular fatality.
In particular, it’s Morales’ wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), whose own father ran the dodgy business he bought, who displays an affinity for the moral turpitude he seeks to avoid. She has been cooking the books for years (albeit he has let her get on with it), she’s happy to carry an unregistered hand gun, something he refuses (to protect their children) and she’s the one with the foresight to skim money and stash it away in a hidden bank account, foreseeing the risks inherent in Abel’s business strategy. She knows it’s simpler just to do it than debate it with him.
In that sense she’s more a Lady Macbeth who doesn’t need her man to screw his courage to the stick post (albeit she uses moll language, warning Lawrence Abel will make it his mission in life to ruin him, she is only half-truthing when she says “We’re not who you think we are”; that’s only the case with Abel); she’s getting the job done for him, as is – perhaps rather crudely – illustrated in the scene where she pops a couple of caps in a car-battered deer before her tentative husband can put it out of its distress with a crowbar.
Abel refuses to accept how the world works, and must come to terms with it in order to progress. Lawrence very much does accept it, however, presumably picking on Abel, of all those in the business he might have picked on, because he sees someone who will rise in influence, as the end bears out, and will aid him in his political ambitions (very The Wire, of which Peter Gerety has a role as a Teamsters guy). Lawrence’s concerns, when he expresses frustration, are those of reputation, of how any failure will be perceived by others, rather than seeing justice served. And Abel’s lawyer Andrew Walsh (the excellent Albert Brooks, sporting an unlikely hairpiece) resigns himself to his client’s edicts but knows in each situation there is a different way of doing things that is part of the way of things, be it arming drivers or not telling Abel about his wife’s stash.
In the final scene Abel suggests to Lawrence that he always chose the path that was “most right”, and for him that involves appearance – like Lawrence – more than anything he fundamentally believes. So he sends Julian (Elyes Gabel) back out to work without protection, relying ona persuasive tongue to put his employees in harm’s way. When Julian blows his brains out, Abel shows no compassion (he even doesn’t persuade him not to do it; at least he isn’t pointing the gun at his former boss any more). Rather, his concern is for the oil spurting out of the bullet-punctured tank. Abel has his own moral vacuum, one that encapsulates the ‘80s white collar “greed is good” ethos; why else would he marry a woman he has nothing in common with if it wasn’t a means to an end in his business endeavours. When Andrew asks, “Why do you want it so much?” It could be Gordon Gekko replying, “I have no idea what you mean”.
But Abel’s presentable veneer doesn’t solve the situation with his drivers; indeed it’s only when he puts a gun in the mouth of a hijacker that he resolves the matter (one might say he’s dignified in his restraint, but he still had to go to that place). And it’s a resolution that doesn’t account for the pervading violence and corruption surrounding Abel. Whoever broke into his house wasn’t part of their outfit, or whoever beat up his fresh-faced salesman; the implication is, it may be Alessandro Nivola’s rival and “friend” Peter. Like Anna, he comes from the business, and like Anna, he has only nominally changed his ways and differentiated himself from his father’s mob practices (which he pretty much admits to when Abel goes to him for a loan). Or perhaps the Hassidic Jews he arranged his teetering land buy with are in fact masterminds of the operation, or at least willing accomplices to the hijackers storing their goods; either way, it is clear no one is operating by Abel’s perceived code but Abel.
Chandor elicits faultless performances from his cast. Isaac goes from strength to strength as “Mr Fucking American Dream”, treading a path of turmoil beneath outward composure, while Chastain brings easy mettle. Good to see Nivola back in a decent role, and Oyelowo gives the kind of measured showing that speaks volumes. Chandor’s film is a slippery affair, and like his earlier Margin Call it tackles the often difficult to dramatise subject of money making by any means. But it’s more oblique than that picture, content to let viewers fill in the gaps. A Most Violent Year has been compared to the work of Sidney Lumet, but apart from the New York milieu it doesn’t really feel like a Lumet film; it lacks the grit and immediacy, insulated by an ambient score from Alex Ebert. It’s a more restrained picture, and its greater merits percolate through as one reflects on it.