A Most Violent Year - 'a confident and exceptionally intelligent film''
Drama: Starring Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola, Albert Brooks, John Procaccino, Elyes Gabe. Directed by JC Chandor. Cert 15A
Just as the wonderful Whiplash wrings terrific drama and tension from the unlikely world of jazz drumming, you’d be hard-pressed to make a pitch for a thrilling movie to be made about the cut-throat world of the domestic heating oil business, but JC Chandor has done just that with his third feature.
His 2011 debut, Margin Call, was a gripping, dialogue-heavy account of an unscrupulous financial company on the eve of the 2008 crash, and he followed that in 2013 with the equally taut All is Lost, which featured Robert Redford alone on a sinking yacht in the Pacific and had no dialogue to, ahem, speak of. Clearly, Chandor is no one-trick pony, and he proves that here with a superb morality tale that entertains and leaves the viewer with plenty to think about.
The year referred to in the title is 1981, a time when New York was about to go under, being practically broke and with crime at unprecedented levels. This is not the city so brilliantly eulogised by Woody Allen in Manhattan, but a dirty, dysfunctional and practically dystopian urban wasteland that any sane person would do their level best to leave ASAP. Not so Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac, again), a self-made immigrant who has chosen this volatile time to expand his heating oil business.
Having hauled himself up by his bootstraps, Morales is determined to do things by the book – not exactly an easy task when corruption is endemic at every stratum of society and his rivals aren’t exactly averse to using underhand tactics to see him off. From his Brooklyn base – Manhattan itself frequently looms in the distance almost as a fabled land to be reached some day – our central character plans a major move to acquire a river-based terminal that will see him gain a big advantage over his competitors, and has set himself 30 days to completely finance the deal. However, when his bankers leave him dangling in the breeze, his trucks continue to be hijacked and his salespeople assaulted, it looks as if the American Dream is over for Abel.
Now, that wouldn’t make for good drama, and Morales isn’t a quitter – certainly not with his steely wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), the daughter of a Brooklyn crime family, by his side. The dilemma, of course, is whether he can continue to conduct business on the up-and-up and hope to win out, or does he dabble in the dark side, his wife referring on several occasions to calling on her connections to have things “dealt with”.
All of this plays out against a period-perfect backdrop, Chandor choosing to give the film a muted, almost murky look with browns and greys prominent in the colour palette. Oscar Isaac makes for a mesmerising leading man here, giving a great portrayal of a guy determined not to lose what he’s fought so hard for, while Jessica Chastain isn’t quite the Lady Macbeth character it would have been all too easy to slip in to. You definitely get the impression that her husband wouldn’t have got this far without her having his back.
There’s definitely more than a touch of the young Al Pacino about Isaac here, to the extent that at times Morales so resembled Michael Corleone in the second half of The Godfather that I began to wonder if I’d stumbled into a tribute movie. That minor quibble aside, A Most Violent Year is a confident and exceptionally intelligent film that firmly establishes JC Chandor among the higher echelons of American film-makers.