A mafia film without the gangsters, A Most Violent Year is an exercise in restraint for both its characters and its creators.
I’ve always been more afraid of failure than I am of anything else.
J.C. Chandor’s third film is The Godfather of the 1980s oil and gas business, though that’s a misdirection of sorts. A Most Violent Year is not a gangster film, but it is a film with the mafia looming around its edges, waiting to emerge from the shadows.
Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is an immigrant business owner who worked his way up from driving oil delivery trucks to eventually owning the company. Abel finds himself stuck in a dangerous middle ground. His company is too big for his competitors to just ignore, but not yet large enough to wield real power in the super competitive (and super corrupt) New York oil market. That will all change if Abel can pull off a tricky real estate deal. He covets the property that neighbors his own facility, and, if he were able to buy it, he would have a colossal amount of storage space, river access to purchase product directly from suppliers, and a huge advantage on the rest of his competition.
The terms of the deal are risky. The down payment on the property will take Abel’s entire savings, and he’ll have only 30 days to close the deal. After 30 days he will lose the money he’s already invested, and the lot will be sold to a competitor, effectively destroying Abel’s company. Abel, however, will not be dissuaded. His talks with his employees are always peppered with references to how he clawed his way to his current position through hard work and daring, and that means taking big risks to earn big rewards. As he tells a team of bankers considering providing his loan, “when it feels scary to jump, that’s exactly when you jump.”
Set during 1981, statistically one of the most violent years in New York City’s history, the threat of violence hangs around the edges of the film. The New York oil market is deeply connected with organized crime. Abel’s business manager Andrew, played wonderfully by Albert Brooks, is a former mafia man. Even with grey hair and wire-rimmed glasses, the former mafia lieutenant oozes a feeling of danger hiding beneath the surface. His business cards may say “manager,” but they mean “consigliere.” Abel’s wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) is the daughter of an unseen, but often mentioned, mafia boss – the one Abel bought his company from, to be precise – and she, like Andrew, exudes a sense of pent-up danger waiting to be released. This company was once run by dangerous, deadly men, and it would only take a word to make it so again.
Chandor’s film is all about restraint, in narrative, theme, and execution. When unknown men continue to carjack the company’s trucks and steal their oil, many urge Abel towards retaliation. “Arm your drivers,” they tell him, but Abel refuses. Even with a crumbling world around him, Abel remains as straight an arrow as possible. Someone is out to ruin his business, but a hasty legal mistake on Abel’s part could do their work for them. He prefers to do it the right way, even if it’s not the easy way. “You will never do anything as hard as staring someone straight in the eye and telling you the truth,” he tells a group of new salesmen.
Isaac’s Abel is fascinating to watch, calm and collected on the surface despite the currents of anger underneath. He radiates a sense of cold calculation and intrinsic strength exemplified by his expensive suits and perfectly set hair. His look certainly screams crime boss, even if he says he isn’t one. That’s the real source of his power in business dealings. Everyone else in this business may be a thug, but he’s a businessman. “These men are cowards,” he says. “Too weak to fight with their own hands, and too stupid to know what else to do.”
But again, the right way is not always the easy way. Abel continues to lose his trucks, struggles to retain drivers, and finds himself facing litigation from the assistant district attorney (David Oyelowo) for “illegal business practices.” As his circumstances and business teeter on the edge of collapse, Abel remains resolute in his approach even when others urge him towards a darker path, specifically Anna. The role gives Jessica Chastain a chance to vamp it up onscreen with a New York accent and designer wardrobe. Anna may not be mafia herself, but she’s mafia by blood, and she’s prepared to do what must be done to save their business. Furthermore, she underscores one of the film’s best subplots. All of Abel’s stories about hard work and the American way? Lies. “It wasn’t your good luck helping you out all of these years. It was me!” she says during an argument. For all of Abel’s noble tactics and hard work speeches, Anna asserts that it’s her connections that have propped up the business.
Much of the film is an exercise in technique, and the influence of The Godfather can’t be missed. A carjacking on the freeway is a definite nod to Sonny Corleone’s murder. A sit-down with the heads of the oil businesses in New York recalls The Godfather’s famous boardroom meeting. That’s not to say that A Most Violent Year is beholden to its influences. It’s very much its own film, but it’s smart enough to understand what came before it, and to nod in that direction.
A lot of work has gone into evoking the world of 1980s New York, and the production has absolutely nailed it. An early muted-colored shot of the New York City skyline complete with the towers of the World Trade Center does more to encapsulate the setting and feel of the film than I could possibly describe. Lensed by cinematographer Bradford Young, who also shot Selma, the film’s dark interiors and muted colors purposely recall Gordon Willis’s work on Coppola’s mafia classic, and the film is incredibly stylish. The fact that he wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award (for this film or Selma) is incredibly frustrating. When Abel sits in his office, bathed in a bold mixture of light and darkness, you’ll swear you’re seeing Michael Corleone. Much of that credit goes to Isaac as well. He’s perfect as a man trying to stay straight in a world gone wrong, a man trying to stay out of the “family business,” as it were.
Despite the title, A Most Violent Year isn’t the brutal film that you would expect. As I said, it’s a film all about control. It’s a film about the threat of violence and how we respond to it. The film’s violent scenes are few and brief, but it’s thanks to Chandor’s reserved approach that they really stand out against the rest of the film. A chase sequence that occurs late in the film is phenomenal, moving from car pursuit to a foot chase and then onto the subway, and it is well worth the wait. Some will certainly say that A Most Violent Year is too slow, but I think it’s just right. It’s properly restrained. A film all about its character’s reservations and reluctance is one that should take its time. This is a slow burn, not an explosion. Your enjoyment of this film probably hinges on if you’re okay with that or not. Personally, I loved it. Given this or the unrestrained frenzy of something like Inherent Vice, I’ll take this every time.
This is J.C. Chandor’s best film yet (I also loved All is Lost), and he continues to stretch his directing muscles and try out new things, picking up new tricks along the way.He has yet to make a great film, though he’s now made three excellent ones. Right now he just keeps practicing his art, and getting ready. His great film is coming, and I can’t wait to be there when it arrives.