Film of the Week: A Most Violent Year
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The first thing that impressed me in A Most Violent Year, written and directed by J.C. Chandor, was the overcoats worn by Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain—pale, bulky, very sumptuous. Very significant too: the coats represent their characters’ aspirations to affluence, success, and respectability, but while they keep their wearers warm through a New York winter, they also function metaphorically as armor in the battle they’re about to enter in a brutal business world, and armor against painful truth.
The coats are the sleekest, chicest adornments in a film that’s otherwise starkly downbeat, visually and dramatically. A Most Violent Year is a tough, mature piece of storytelling from Chandor, whose 2011 debut Margin Call was an impressive surprise, and whose follow-up All Is Lost (13) was widely admired. While the latter is still on my catch-up pile, A Most Violent Year—this week named Best Film by the National Board of Review—is high on my list of the year’s movies that I want to see again in 2015. It’s an impressive, substantial piece of work, and a proper old-fashioned nail-biter too.
The action is set in New York in 1981, following what one character points out was the city’s worst-ever year for rape and murder. Throughout, we see a harsh, battle-scarred place: scenes in the outer boroughs show desolate stretches of wasteland, subway windows are opaque with graffiti, and stretches of bleak riverside terrain are ripe for seizure in property wars. It’s pretty much the Wild East, but protagonist Abel Morales wants to be the good guy in the white hat. Played by Oscar Isaac, Abel is the ambitious owner of an oil heating company; he’s planning a major expansion, and to that end intends to buy an expanse of grim-looking riverside property from its owner, a Hassidic patriarch. Abel prides himself on doing things legit—on having got to where he is through principled practice, energy, and charm. But it’s a tough playing field, and not everyone else in his business has his scruples; Abel’s trucks are being hijacked by parties unknown. When we meet some of Abel’s competitors—notably the well-established, impeccably smooth Peter (Alessandro Nivola)—it’s clear that he’s operating in a world of smiling but bloodthirsty wolves, and it can’t be long until his own hands have to get dirty, or bloody.
Abel is deceiving himself too—forgetting what it means that he has bought the business from the gangster father of his wife Anna (Chastain). She is Abel’s business partner and accountant, and he seems to be in denial about how much of her business talent and professional ethics she has inherited from the family firm. Chastain gives her best performance yet, her increasingly formidable hardness in counterpoint to Isaac’s restrained composure. When we first see Anna, she’s jabbing with a pencil at an adding machine—one of those simple but telling bits of specialized physical business that gives a character that extra edge of reality—and before long she’s jabbing an icy, varnished fingernail at the district attorney (David Oyelowo) who’s come to seize their business records. The next thing she brandishes is a gun—so it’s a characterization that’s aggressive in gradual increments.
The film works gradually overall, nicely pacing its revelations of plot, character, and background. For example, it’s only late in the film that Abel speaks Spanish for the first time, and we realize that the film has held back on revealing too much about his origins and making us think about his backstory. For most of the film, Abel presents himself as a smoothly packaged performance, an already finished and polished personality, something he does with pride and finesse. In a terrific scene in which, quietly but persuasively, he trains his apprentice sales force in the art of winning over new customers: when offered a drink, ask for tea not coffee, because it shows you have class; and look people in the eye just a little too long: “You’ll never do anything as hard as looking someone straight in the eye and telling the truth.” Well, yes—but then Abel and Anna have opponents who find nothing easier than looking people in the eye and lying.
A Most Violent Year is about the recent past in a number of ways: it’s about New York before the precarious boom of the Eighties, about the harshness of its “frontier town” years. DP Bradford Young and production designer John P. Goldsmith paint this world in tones of oppressive beige and brown muddiness—the murk that the couple are trying to escape from into a shiny, glossier Eighties world—but the visuals are without the arch exaggeration that films often use to reassure us that the past is the past, exotic even when it’s squalid. This movie may be set three and a half decades ago, but the action always has an absolute sense of present-tense actuality, and is set in a real world rather than one obviously filtered through film history.
But the story is also set in a past now unimaginable to most cinemagoers—a time before Internet and before mobile phones, when business had to be done face to face. Abel spends a great deal of his time going to meet people: to broker a property deal with cash-packed attaché cases; attending polite dinners where the mutual hostility crackles palpably but just out of sight under the table; petitioning people who might just bail him out of an increasingly tight situation with a loan that he’ll have to sell his soul for. Confronting the people who he knows are conspiring to destroy him, Abel tells them: “What I’m saying is stop. Now. Have some pride in what you do.” He says it calmly and authoritatively, but ultimately he’s still pleading, throwing himself on their mercy. When you negotiate with people face to face, Chandor reminds us, the potential for frustration and humiliation is phenomenal—in a way that seems almost forgotten in cinema, but that was once the moral center of so much crime and boardroom drama. (It’s also the basis of the Dardenne Brothers’ labor relations melodrama Two Days, One Night, opening later this month.)
Chandor very astutely conveys the matter of what professionals show, and what they hide—not least from their own allies. A flat-capped Albert Brooks, for example, as the Morales’s lawyer Andrew Walsh, comes across as a canny, reassuring, tweedy sort of yeoman figure; it’s only as things progress that we begin to realize how much he’s made of the merciless stuff of a mob consigliere (Abel shows wonderful distaste when Walsh beckons him aside for a confidential chat, and Abel mutters ruefully, “Is this what it comes to—that we have to walk outside like fucking gangsters?”). And Anna, though manifestly a rock-hard cookie from the start, emerges as someone who’s capable of anything—ready to stand by Abel and protect their family to such a degree that she’s prepared to crush him too if he doesn’t come up to scratch (her killer line: “You’re not gonna like what’ll happen once I get involved”).
The interplay between Isaac and Chastain is superb, and at its height, we get something else that we don’t see much of in the cinema these days: the serious marital row. By which I mean a major-stakes face-off between two adults whose emotional, social, and financial existences are inextricably knitted together. The scene is all the more convincing, and moving, in its dynamics in that it flares up in a sudden flurry of yelling and then, just as dramatically, is over.
This is a well-honed modern tragedy about the difficulty in the adult world of being good at what you do and being good. It’s also a sparely executed thriller that has some great sequences in a classic vein: a tense household-in-peril moment, a nice bit of sour comedy when cops arrive at the Morales family’s shiny new modernist home during a children’s party, and Abel has to sneak out and dispose of the compromising business records; and a bracing old-school pursuit sequence. Reviewers have compared Chandor’s film to prime Sidney Lumet, which is bang-on, and Isaac’s quietly commanding performance to Al Pacino’s Michael in The Godfather, partly because Abel too is a man of integrity who’s nevertheless destined to dive into the moral morass with everyone else (actually, rather than Pacino, there are beguilingly odd overtones of Christopher Walken in Isaac’s generally soft-spoken delivery—“We’re on the same side here” becomes, “We’re on the same side? Here.”) In fact, A Most Violent Year is one of those rare films that, like The Godfather, explore the messy, critical collision zone between crime, business, politics, and home life. It’s a world in which, finally, your soul stands slightly less chance of staying clean than a camelhair coat.
A Most Violent Year opens December 31 in New York and Los Angeles.