Moody tale with a violent undertone
A MOST VIOLENT YEAR (NC16)
Crime drama/125 minutes/Opens today
MORE brooding than brutal, A Most Violent Year finds Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), the upwardly mobile owner of a heating-oil business, in a time of difficulty. Some of the trouble is atmospheric.
It is 1981 and New York City is in a state of decay that looks, in the burnished tints of movie hindsight, almost picturesque. Subway cars blossom with graffiti; the radio news wearily tallies each day's shootings and stabbings; crime and corruption hang in the winter air like smog.
J. C. Chandor, the writer and director of this pulpy, meaty, altogether terrific film, and Bradford Young, its supremely talented director of photography, succeed in giving this beat-up version of the city both historical credibility and expressive power.
The light is harsh, the shadows are dense and forces of chaos seem to gather just outside the frame, their presence signalled by Alex Ebert's anxious musical score.
In the course of A Most Violent Year, there is an occasional gunshot and some blood is shed, but the violence alluded to in the film's title is largely a matter of mood rather than action - of whispers, not noise. We cannot understand Abel, a quiet, calm man whose good manners seem to sit atop a deep reservoir of fury, without a grasp of his environment, even if its governing logic is mysterious.
The New York heating-oil business is depicted as an unglamorous but lucrative trade with its own tribal rules and customs, ruled by a small group of families whose members divide territories and settle disputes according to mafia-like principles.
Abel's company is expanding, but not without significant growing pains. As he prepares to close on a coveted piece of commercial real estate and move his family into a fortress-like suburban mansion, he is menaced from every direction. His trucks are hijacked by armed thugs, and one of his drivers (Elyes Gabel) is in particular danger. Abel's salesmen are not safe as they go from door to door. An assistant district attorney (David Oyelowo) is preparing indictments.
"It looks very bad," says Abel's lawyer, a skilful worrier played by Albert Brooks, American cinema's greatest fatalist.
Amid all these threats, Abel's wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), whose father used to own the company, wonders if her husband has the wherewithal to protect her and their three young daughters. Abel, rarely raising his voice or losing his composure, takes ostentatious pride in his honest, reasonable way of doing business. He does not like guns, cheating or anything that would make him look like a gangster.
Anna, a gangster's daughter, takes a more traditional approach, which can make her appear to be the tougher and more pragmatic half of the couple.
Appearances can be deceiving, though. Not that there is any doubting Anna's resolve. It is clear that she can be ruthless in defence of her family's interests, but she is also limited by the patriarchal codes of her milieu.
Her role is to offer support and an occasional nudge, but unlike most crime movies, which treat wives as static, marginal figures, A Most Violent Year is interested in the dynamic of Abel and Anna's marriage, which unites, sometimes uneasily, the imperatives of business and the demands of love. The movie entwines two old sayings: Behind every great man there is a great woman, and behind every great fortune there is a great crime.
Maybe Abel is not guilty of anything more serious than arrogance. He is named after the Old Testament's first innocent victim and, as his torments increase, he might be taken as the latest cinematic incarnation of Job.
The intricacy of this movie's plot reflects the complexity of its protagonist, who is a fascinating skein of ambiguities and contradictions brought forcefully to life by Isaac, an actor who has evolved from being someone to watch into someone you cannot take your eyes off.
Abel is a man of action, fond of inspirational bromides and self-help business slogans, but Isaac, with his mournful eyes and slightly predatory smile, provides tantalising glimpses of the divided soul behind the confident facade.
A Most Violent Year is Chandor's third feature film - after Margin Call and All Is Lost - and it is larger in scale and wider in range than its predecessors, both of which are studies in confinement and compression.
Margin Call took place almost entirely inside the offices of an investment firm on a single hectic night. All Is Lost was about a man alone on a boat in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Compared with them, A Most Violent Year is busy and crowded, full of incidental pleasures (including at least a half-dozen memorable bits of character acting) and piquant period details.
But the three movies nonetheless form a rough trilogy, whose subtitle might be "The Soul of Man under Capitalism". Each one is, accordingly, a perfect two-sided coin, a story of heroic resolve that is also a troubling allegory of greed and hubris.
Margin Call is both a thrilling spectacle of damage control or the anatomy of a grotesque act of free-market savagery.
All Is Lost is at once an epic of individual survival and a fable of how the recklessness of the privileged can be mistaken for mastery, with disastrous consequences.
A Most Violent Year presents an honourable man struggling to stay true to his values in the face of temptation. It is also the portrait of a brilliant hustler working a very long con. It's a terrific movie either way.