A Gangster film without the Gangsters
J.C. Chandor is fast approaching the top of several ‘Directors To Watch’ lists, and with good reason. Both of his earlier releases, 2011’s high-tension Wall Street thriller Margin Call and 2013’s “Robert Redford vs. The Sea” survival drama All Is Lost, received high critical acclaim. Chandor’s latest film, A Most Violent Year, maintains the pressure by swiveling focus to the fringes of America’s independent energy sector, where moral and legal boundaries are disconcertingly blurry.
New York, winter 1981: statistically one of the city’s most violent periods on record. Streets are lined with dirty snow, a foreboding grey sky clings overhead, and charismatic entrepreneur Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) seeks to expand his heating oil distribution business: an industry fraught with corruption, extortion, and notoriously linked to organised crime.
Declaring that he has “always taken the path that is most right”, Abel is a straight-shooter swimming against a tide of murky criminal waters. Never a hair out of place and enrobed in a pristine Italian suits, he rules with a firm-but-fair iron authority. He’s a Michael Corleone minus the menace. Completing the faux-mafia inner circle: wife and accountant Jessica Chastain (herself a driven and independent ex-mob princess) and lawyer-come-Consigliere Albert Brooks.
In a fair game, there would be no stopping the young upstart. He, his strategy, and business are simply better than the rest of the field. But the forces of New York conspire against him: a 14-point indictment is pending from the City District Attorney (David Oyelowo), hired thugs are incessantly hijacking the company’s oil trucks at huge cost to profits, and armed intruders stalk the outskirts of the family home at night.
Despite the increasingly volatile situation, Abel beats numerous competitors to initiate a boom-or-bust deal to purchase a strategically located oil terminal, fronting the business’s entire bankroll as a non-refundable deposit in the process. His explanation: “when it feels scary to jump, that is exactly when you jump, otherwise you end up staying in the same place your whole life and that I can’t do.” With 30-day payment-terms in place and additional bank funding looking shaky, the deal must complete or his cash collateral and Business Empire will disappear faster than a boosted Heavy Goods Vehicle.
J.C. Chandor has succeeded wonderfully in making an organised crime film worthy of the genre without the need for any definitive gangsters. The world he presents is not so black-and-white as ‘wise-guys and civilians’, but as grey as the snow crunching under his protagonist’s feet. But the references are there throughout: moments at toll-booths conjure images of a certain shooting from The Godfather, many of the supporting cast have starred in HBO gang shows The Sopranos, The Wire, and Boardwalk Empire, with violence and crime seeming as carefree as any moment from Goodfellas.
“I don’t want anything to do with this!” screams Abel, yet we still observe him handing over $1 million cash to a group of Hasidic Jews in unmarked briefcases, chase down an assailant with a baseball bat, and pistol-whip a driver for information. Such is the dichotomy: he wants to play things straight and fair, but events are trying to push him in a shadier direction.
This core theme is echoed with a line from Chandor’s earlier film Margin Call, with CEO/Banking God Jeremy Irons declaring on the eve of the 2008 banking crisis: “There are 3 ways to making a living in this business: be first, be smarter, or cheat, and I don’t cheat.” Abel strives to live by the same mantra: “I run a fair and clean business and I will fight to my last breath to prove that.”
Structurally the film is robust and astute, offering a good spread of shady business meetings, legal drama, car chases, shootouts, and touching moments of intimacy. Whilst there are strong cast performances across the board, leads Isaac and Chastain should receive particular acclaim as the Macbethian power couple, combining to form an exothermic and authentic chemistry.
The film’s intelligence also extends into its cinematography, which generates a certain beauty from the dilapidated industrial landscapes, offering warmth to a cold environment. Shots are rich and textured, peppered with multiple layers of visual information, an immersive and almost 3-dimenional effect delivered from mostly static frames. In one restaurant scene, your eyes can wander to different quadrants of the screen, telling multiple parts of the story with a single glance.
The film is slightly let down by its resolution and pacing: the slow-building continuous pressure not quite producing the ‘bang’ that’s expected. Nonetheless, it remains thought provoking, intense, and engaging – a worthy addition to Chandor’s increasingly impressive portfolio.