The American writer-director J.C. Chandor has come to specialise in movie explorations of a most contemporary phenomenon: crisis management. His 2011 debut Margin Call found Wall Street bankers trying to steady a company ship in the hours before their bad investments came to light; 2013’s All is Lost saw old-man-of-the-sea Robert Redford faced with a leaky vessel and a gathering storm. With his new film A Most Violent Year, Chandor takes us back to seedy early 80s New York, where we find Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), an upwardly mobile heating oil magnate facing multiple professional challenges.
I hear your cries. A movie set within the heating oil industry? What next: a big-screen expose of insider trading among Avon ladies? Funny thing: Chandor does just about all he can to make this world come alive, and to stock it deep with cutthroat drama. Morales’ drivers are being attacked by goons employed by some as yet unidentified rival supplier; he has the cops looking into his finances; and he’s trying to close a deal on a processing plant that would mark a step up to the big leagues.
From the script’s slow, steady drip of exposition, we learn that Abel took over the company from his wife’s father, and that he was once a driver himself, hence his quaintly protective relations with his put-upon minions. The drama stems from the realisation he’s not the top dog we initially take him for, rather a struggling middleman. As Abel’s pulled every which way by increasingly ruthless market forces, his ties with his workers will be tested, and brutally severed. Another American dream gives way to American nightmare.
Some claimed All is Lost as a parable of globalisation: the container that ruptured the Redford hull was, after all, transporting cheap trainers from unknown here to untold there. It may therefore be crucial that A Most Violent Year unfolds in 1981, that year when the Reagan administration obtained its mandate. In Abel’s parable, there lies the genesis of corporate capitalism, that big-bang moment when it suddenly wasn’t enough to sell a man a cup of oil to heat his home; now, you had to crush all rivals so as to obtain the monopoly that allows you to charge him more.
All Chandor does is make this destabilisation literal, in the attacks on Morales personnel, and a couple of high-tempo pursuits that are surely indebted to Friedkin’s The French Connection. Echoes of other urban crime movies abound, yet to the frenzied expansionism of the DePalma Scarface and Scorsese’s 21st-century update The Wolf of Wall Street – films very much of their excessive times – Chandor counters with a level-headed, MBA-schooled perspective: we’re closer to the altogether more austere stamping grounds of James Gray (The Yards, We Own the Night).
In cinema, as in the real world, such austerity measures can be a double-edged sword. Bradford Young’s hibernal cinematography – channelling Gordon Willis’ Godfather work – puts the cold back into your bones, and the cast downplay their reactions to the mounting chaos; it never once overheats, and nobody’s going to come away with a “say hello to my little friend” impersonation to work on. The most outlandish character, Jessica Chastain’s Mrs. Morales – pulling strings in Lady Macbeth-meets-Lady Gaga wigs, while pushing her man towards a more extreme position – gets left behind while the plot closes in on one errant driver.
Still, there are plus points, not least another demonstration, after Inside Llewyn Davis and The Two Faces of January, of Isaac’s supreme versatility. His Abel is almost an anti-Scarface (key line: “I spent my whole life trying not to become a gangster”), desperately trying both to save his hide and do the right thing, and coming to realise – as many CEOs have realised in the years since – that the two may be mutually exclusive.
If A Most Violent Year is, like its protagonist, a bit too cool to stir the blood, it’s always seeking out further context for the systemic mess we now find ourselves in: the punchy ending reminds us once again how oil, the lifeblood of American industry, cannot be tapped, pumped or controlled without a good deal of dirty work, and not the least amount of collateral damage.
(MovieMail, January 2015)
A Most Violent Year screens on BBC1 tomorrow (Tue 17) at 11.55pm.