In the space of just a few years, writer-director J.C. Chandor has marked himself out as an impressive new voice in the world of cinema. He burst onto the scene with his Oscar-nominated financial drama Margin Call, which showed off his talent for complex but utterly compelling dialogue even about the most dense of subjects. He followed that up with a powerful existential survival drama in All Is Lost, drawing out of Robert Redford perhaps the best performance of his career.
Now he’s back with another impressive, handsomely mounted film this time focusing on the seedy world of shady businessmen, back room deals and often violent corner-cutting to get ahead. Set in New York City in 1981, man-of-the-moment Oscar Isaac stars as Abel Morales, an immigrant oil businessman operating during what is statistically one of the most violent years in the city’s history. Despite his trucks being hijacked for months, turning his suspicion to one or more of his rivals, he preaches non-violence and respect in all that he does, doing whatever he can to prove that he runs, “a fair and clean business.” With his ambitious wife (Jessica Chastain) by his side, he does his best to find out who’s perpetrating these crimes and to expand his business without becoming the type of man he so desperately wants to avoid.
Chandor’s film serves as both a literal time jump back to the era in which it’s set, with superb period detail and beautiful cinematography bolstering an authentic atmosphere, and as an enjoyably gritty throwback to the films of that time. We find ourselves very much in a Serpico/Godfather/French Connection-esque world here, where seemingly no one can be trusted, corruption and shady dealing are more common than the famous Yellow Cabs and there’s danger lurking around every dark and murky corner.
Ironically it’s less of a violent, bloody affair than it’s title so overtly suggests – nae promises – but that seems like it would have been the easier option to take, perhaps resulting in a more visceral experience but probably an emptier one that doesn’t really stay with you. Chandor’s film takes a much subtler but far more effective approach that’s more to do with how the threat of violence and effect that violence has on the business expansion (read: capitalistic ambitions) of its characters, helping it linger long in the mind.
It reminded me of last year’s under-seen Locke, in which Tom Hardy played a respectful, strong-minded man desperate to complete a concrete pour he‘s in charge of even after he’s been fired . It’s oil here instead of concrete but the principle of the two films are the same; it’s not really about the materials, even if that’s what motivates the characters in a literal sense, but uses that as a metaphorical base from which explore their respective themes.
Strong performances helps give depth and empathy to what might otherwise have been cold and austere characters, with Isaac giving an effectively insular, restrained performance that evokes Pacino in The Godfather – the film and central performance is more reminiscent of Part I in Francis Ford Coppola’s gangster trilogy than it is Part II – and while Chastain is equally good as his faithful, quietly ruthless wife. The two have terrific chemistry together and the film is often at its strongest whenever they’re on-screen together, whether it’s exchanging subtle glances or full-on marital rows. David Oyelowo is also very good as the assistant D.A. investigating Abel’s business practices, as is Albert Brooks playing what is essentially the Robert Duvall consigliere role as Abel’s dedicated advisor.
The film may lack true originality as it covers much of the same crime-ridden ground and asks the same sort of morality question – about the likes of doing certain perceivably wrong things to get ahead – as many films before it. But, much like its central character, it does so with real class and respect, populating its unpredictable world of crime with well-written characters that we might not necessarily care about in the fullest sense of the word but who are nevertheless fascinating to watch.
A Most Violent Year is released in UK cinemas on January 23rd.