A MOST VIOLENT YEAR
(Dir. J.C. Chandor, 2014)
The poster picture for this movie lists actors Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain in succession with the description “New York City, 1981.” That seems to suggest that New York City, circa ’81 is as much a star of the movie of those two leads. But really it’s just the NYC skyline, with the World Trade Center’s twin towers present in many shots, that counts as a principle player here.
Isaac commands the screen with cool, cunning confidence as Abel Morales, a Columbian immigrant who’s looking to close a major waterfront land deal (that happens to have an amazing view of Manhattan) so he can expand his heating oil company.
With his delicately coiffed hair, Armani suits, cashmere camel coat, and cultivated demeanor, Isaac channels GODFATHER PART II-era Al Pacino. Close-ups of Isaac even brought to my mind Mort Drucker’s caricatures of Pacino in old ‘70s issues of Mad Magazine.
But Isaac’s Abel is like if Pacino’s Michael Corleone actually meant it when he told his wife he wanted the family business to be completely legitimate. “I've spent my whole life trying not to become a gangster,” Abel tells his wife Anna, sharply played by Jessica Chastain, dressed in chic ‘80s fashions.
Abel believes in the American dream, but Anna, the daughter of a local mob boss, has a more lived-in cynical perspective, especially since recent events involving their trucks getting hijacked by unknown rivals, and a smooth district attorney (David Oyelowo, in quite a distinctly different persona than MLK Jr. in SELMA) building a case to charge them for white-collar tax fraud, have placed their deal in jeopardy.
Because of the violent hijackings, one of which put a young driver (Elyes Gabel) in the hospital, a Teamster rep (Peter Gerety) tells Abel to arm his employees but he refuses, saying that it “would be the end of everything we worked for. If one of these guys shoots someone, they will bring me down for it.”
Abel also refuses to live in a fortress with guards, even after he chases off a man with a gun lurking outside his new palatial mansion in the suburbs of Westchester.
Albert Brooks, who, like in his Oscar-nominated part in DRIVE (which also featured Isaac), is again playing against type, this time with a wig of thin blonde hair as Abel’s wise lawyer and confidant. Except for a couple of well-worded scenes, notably one in which he asks Isaac: “Why do you want this so badly?”, Brooks isn’t given a lot to do, but his presence is still seriously appreciated.
The pressure is on as time is running out for Abel to raise the needed cash, and find out who’s behind the hijackings, but Abel keeps his cool. That is until he personally involves himself, chasing down one of the hijacking thugs and trying to beat out of them who they work for.
A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, which is only intermittently violent, doesn’t much resemble writer/director J.C. Chandor’s previous films - the financial cliffhanger MARGIN CALL, and the Robert Redford lost at sea drama ALL IS LOST - except in being about practical-minded people trying to survive. Just three films in, Chandor is already building an impressive filmography, one that’s steeped in styles learned from the masters, yet tempered by his own edgy vision.
While Chandor layers his film with echoes of Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, Sidney Lumet, and Martin Scorsese, the cinematography of Bradford Young, who also shot SELMA, brings to mind the darkness of the late, great Gordon Willis’ camerawork. The spare lighting adds shadowy nuance to the proceedings, particularly in a scene involving the meeting of the oil company heads around a table in the back of an Italian restaurant (yes, another GODFATHER-ish bit).
Sadly this excellent, moody, impeccably acted film was overlooked Oscar nomination-wise. For her tough, take-no-shit, New Jersey-accented performance, I thought Chastain would get one for sure. When she takes charge, like when she shoots a deer that they hit with their car because Isaac was hesitating to kill it with a crowbar or when she calls her husband a “pussy,” she’s completely convincing as a woman who’s been around and knows the real stakes.
But Isaac is the true owner of the film. A simple closing of his eyes in disappointment conveys volumes, and his determination to gain more power and control (witness the aforementioned war council scene) without losing his dignity provides the foundation for Isaac’s finest acting yet. Despite his headlining the Coen brothers’ INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS and a bunch of other choice roles, Isaac isn’t a household name yet, but while roles in STAR WARS and X-MEN sequels may change that in the next year, this film is the one that really deserves to be his breakthrough.
The film strains to emphasize that this guy is a better, more moral minded man than Michael Corleone, but as much as he feels that he’s immune from corruption, it’s a necessary evil with which he must compromise.
So many New York movies set in the same period shy away from showing the WTC towers in the skyline, but here they are always present – often out of focus, way off in the background, but always present. Chandor’s film doesn’t have to spell out what they represent in Abel’s quest for success in a harsh, dangerous economy; one can feel it every time they are glimpsed.