A Most Violent Year

February 28, 2015
Oscar Issac in 'A Most Violent Year' (2014)
Oscar Issac in 'A Most Violent Year' (2014)

Oscar Isaac does his best to channel Al Pacino in A Most Violent Year, while director, J.C.Chandor acts as the medium by which the late Sidney Lumet gets to direct another film. These flashes of déjà vu don’t spoil a slow burning thriller that smoulders but never quite blazes. Despite the title, A Most Violent Year conjures up thoughts of a chess board rather than a battlefield.

In Fifty Shades of Grey we never learn a thing about the business that bankrolls Mr.Grey’s sexual fantasies. In A Most Violent Year, business is the engine that drives the story. Oscar Isaac plays Abel Morales, a Latin American immigrant who has worked his way to the top of the heating fuel business in New York. It is a racket rife with sharp practice, but Abel wants to play it straight. Appearances are crucial for a working class climber who dresses elegantly and speaks to everyone with unflagging courtesy. The film begins with the family moving in to a huge, modern mansion in the suburbs.

When Abel’s delivery trucks start getting hijacked, he resists suggestions from his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), that they call on the aid of her mobster father, from whom he bought the business. The thefts are hurting because Abel is trying to close a million dollar deal on a depot site owned by a group of hard-bitten Hasidic Jews. He has invested all his savings in the acquisition and is in danger of losing the lot. Yet when he takes his problem to Mr. Lawrence in the DA’s office (David Oyelowo), he finds his firm is about to be prosecuted for corrupt practises.

It’s a classic case of “Why me?” Abel’s business is hardly different from any of his rivals, apart from the fact that he is making a greater effort to avoid criminality. He seems to be genuinely surprised that his books are not in order. Nevertheless, the looming prosecution destroys his good standing with the bank and torpedoes his hopes for a loan.

The tension is gradually cranked up as Abel struggles to find the money he needs while the deadline for payment looms. At the same time he is trying to find out who is responsible for the hijackings. Is it one of his business rivals, or a conspiracy? Gathered around a restaurant table they all look like gangsters.

Abel’s frustration springs from the fact that he has achieved success by out-thinking and out-marketing his rivals, who have replied with mere thuggery. Like Michael Corleone in Godfather II he finds himself being dragged into an underworld he has made the most strenuous efforts to avoid.

Anna has fewer scruples than her husband when it comes to cooking the books and taking up arms. Their domestic life becomes intertwined with Abel’s murky business problems as he finds himself fighting with well-meaning friends and family, as well as an anonymous enemy.

The most absorbing part of this movie isn’t the plot but the detailed picture of the way business is done in the New York heating oil industry – which might as well be any industry. Apparently there is a universally accepted level of crookedness that applies across the board. Abel likes to present himself as a fair trader but his main concern is to convey the impression of honesty. He talks about “the path that is most right”, as if every step is compromised to some degree. This ethical greyness foreshadows the indulgences of Wall Street in 2008, which Chandor explored in his debut feature, Margin Call (2011).

By all accounts 1981 was one of the most violent years in the history of New York City. Chandor and his cinematographer, Bradford Young, create a vivid portrait of a grimy, down-at-heel metropolis with a perpetual air of menace. Aside from one extended chase sequence this is a story in which action takes second place to negotiation.

Chandor is careful to avoid melodrama, allowing Abel a few concessions rather than stacking the odds overwhelmingly against him. He inhabits a moral twilight zone in which being an honest man can make one seem like a fool, and ultimately a failure. It’s a degenerate version of the American Dream – a conflict between ethics and ambitions in which it is more important to be strong rather than straight.

A Most Violent Year
Written & directed by J.C.Chandor
Starring Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Albert Brooks, Elyes Gabel, Alessandro Nivola
USA, rated MA15+, 124 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 28th February, 2015.