A Most Violent Year (2015)
If you distractedly perused some promotional photos of the new film A Most Violent Year a reasonable, educated response would be to remark ‘huh, so they finally got round to re-making De Palma’s Scarface huh?’ It’s not just the physical similarity between Jessica Chastain and Michelle Pfeiffer’s blonde bobbed coke hovering harpy, it’s also Oscar Isaac’s brooding severity mirror to Pacino’s snarling intensity. The film however is quite a different beast despite the early 80’s time stamp, one twitter user on my feed has already amusingly posted that Millhouse from The Simpsons may well have remarked ‘A Most Violent Year? Well, I can think of at least two things incorrect about that statement’. Rather than a gritty, dirty crime period drama the movie is a much more nuanced affair, a thoughtful mediation on ambition and corruption, set against a backdrop of a decaying urban malaise, y’know the kind of picture that Friedkin or Lumet made back in the golden days of socially astute American cinema. Movies with strong, morally ambiguous anti-heroes struggling to succeed and achieve the American dream amidst corruption and social degradation, a malfunctioning legal system, that kinda thing.
One of the main drivers of my interest in this despite the top tier cast (ably supported by Albert Brooks and the Oscar snubbed David Oyelowo) was the presence of J.C. Chandor in the directors chair, after the twin knockout punches of Margin Call and All Is Lost he’s fast becoming a major talent to watch and admire. Parts of Hollywood seems to have embraced an early period Scorsese aesthetic recently, a minor season of urban passion plays seeped in historical detail and the argot of the street – see also American Hustle, Killing Me Softly, The Place Beyond The Pines and Out Of The Furnace to name just a few – a predilection I can only attribute to producers, writers and directors raised on that diet of brilliance during their cinematic adolescence finally finding themselves in the positions of green-light power. We’re in New York in the arctic winter of 1981, and second generation immigrant businessman Abel Morales (Isaac) is desperately trying to put together an ambitious and expensive final expansion deal for the fuel transportation business that he has acquired from his wife’s Anna (Chastain) mob connected father. Beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men Abel is struggling to stay pure and righteous in a world that’s gone to the dogs, as his union affiliated drivers are regularly being robbed and beaten by shady competitors, and he’s also being investigated by the authorities for his dubious business practices and tax avoidance schemes.
Coincidently I revisited the directors commentary of The Godfather this week, so the astounding work of Gordon ‘Prince of Darkness‘ Willis was ripe in my mind, and it is quite clear that Chandor and his DP Bradford Young were aiming for a similar shadowplay of deep blacks and muted melancholy. The film unfurls in oak panel interiors and brimming orange source lighting, drenching the film with a subdued autumn codex, a chilly and bitter environment where violence is lurking behind every deal and struggle to succeed. It verges on the comical as the pressure is applied on Abel from every avenue of his life and career, from the district DA (Oyelowo) launching a criminal investigation and ignoring his pleas to investigate the robberies that are gutting his revenue stream, from his scarlet taloned wife constantly berating him for putting his family and his masculinity at risk (and these films are always about ‘being a man’), to the trade union muscle demanding he arm his drivers which could potentially result in a more explosive, carnage strewn situation.
These film largely stand or fall on the strength of the performances and Oscar Isacc once again aquints himself admirably as a brooding, fundamentally stand-up guy trying his best to pull everything together and defeat his intangible foes, Chastain as always is terrific as his pouting and dangerous wife with a few secrets of her own. The whole enterprise results in a very solemn and serious film which doesn’t quite pull all its threads together to complete a totally satisfying whole, a couple of plot manevers are really quite clumsy with characters acting in unconvincing ways simply to take the plot Chandor thinks it should go, and some of the symbolism in the final act resolution is thunderingly signposted. Overall though this is a solid, entertaining film with a handful of genuinely powerful and arresting moments, as a third feature it’s further evidence that Chandor is a growingly accomplished and thoughtful storyteller who may have a masterpiece in him yet.