“New York, I love you, but you’re bringing me down…”*
1981. Guns, gangs, police and violence. Tense, full of suspense, J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year inverts the ‘gangster’ genre with an innovative eye. Charting a tale through the story of Oscar Isaac’s Abel Morales, the director approaches the theme from a different angle; a good guy coming to terms with a bad world. As misnomers go, the film is a good one. Those dying for an orgy of Sin City style violence will leave disappointed. It is a shady inflection of early 80s New York with a seam of realism that satisfies fully, not a bloodstained blanket of indecency.
The film feels flawlessly on trend as directors forego the mafia mania of Manhattan for the lonely landscapes of post-industrial Brooklyn. Two 2014 films are reference points. Michaël R. Roskam’s The Drop is the most obvious. Starring Tom Hardy’s Bob as a reluctant enforcer, it approached the subject of a man trapped in this underworld of insecurity and thuggery. Employing Manhattan as a powerfully symbolic backdrop, the film, like Chandor’s, was set in downtown Brooklyn with inner-city NYC as its canvass. A Most Violent Year takes The Drop’s tonal register, a colour palette of pastille grey greens and cross exposes it with 2014’s Hamburg set, A Most Wanted Man. An autumnal ochre infused director Anton Corbijn’s realisation of the Le Carré novel; weak yellows whitewashed the screen. Both are bleak bland settings, creating the atmosphere for their respective film’s abject depiction. A Most Violent Year marries the pair and delivers a far more nuanced, exciting piece of cinema to please, not just appreciate.
The film transposes the best qualities of the others in a singularly cohesive whole. We have the domestic elements familiar from The Drop, there are dogs, deer and daughters mixed with the sense of loss and isolation that permeates Corbijn’s Le Carré narrative. Yet A Most Wanted Man, like its star, Philip Seymour Hoffman, was somewhat bloated and overlong. It did not thrill, but was more of a pensive ride. First and foremost, A Most Violent Year is a really effective and affecting film with genuine shocks and an electric undercurrent of energy. But for one final reference, it comes with a Wolf Of Wall Street style societal critique. Only it is not a vindicating, explicit celebration of capitalist cronyism like Scorcese’s ill-placed disgrace, but a timely thesis on the limitations of success for a good man trapped within an evil system.
“Like a rat in a cage, pulling minimum wage…”*
Hispanic immigrant, Abel (Isaac) starts as a truck driver for Standard Oil before achieving the life of “Mr Fucking American Dream” in the worldly words of his wife and owning the company. We do not see his rise, only the thirty days needed to secure the payment for his next wave of expansion: the acquiring of the dock opposite his storage facility. As you expect, complications arise in a world where there is literally fuel for the fire of lust, greed, envy and the myriad vices of the oil industry. We glean that Abel’s meteoric surge into the realm of millionaire magnates is in part down to his marriage to Jessica Chastain’s, Anna. Daddy was not a nice man, but a crooked crook now incarcerated. Daughter and husband inherit the business and begin detoxifying the brand. This is notoriously difficult when your product is a chemical pollutant not know for its pharmaceutical qualities.
On interview, Chastain rather bizarrely noted Dick Cheney as an influence. Physically, it is more or less equivalent, but there is more of a Bush empire built on petrodollars than a Cheney eye for terror and bombast. Would Chastain force Colin Powell to lie to the UN? Would she invade Iraq, killing thousands of Americans and western forces, whilst directly displacing millions and triggering the malaise now manifest in the Middle East, an ever expanding extremism from Nigeria to Pakistan? I think not, she is still a Hollywood actress, after all. The Cheney point was more to do with power. Chastain certainly wears the armour plated, gun-toting trousers in A Most Violent Year’s central couple. The pair are utterly credible in their romance; a mixture of devout commitment belies a constant war for supremacy that packs some sweet punches of surprise. Guns, deers and daughters are the film’s moments for memory, as the gangster gradually encroaches on the domestic and the onscreen power couple are drawn into a world of war.
“I’ve spent my whole life trying not to be a gangster. Now, on the biggest deal of my life, they own me”.
So utters a disconsolate Abel as he sits shrug-shouldered on the sofa after a hard day sharking for loans amidst a tank of killer whales within oily water (BP). Chastain perches beside him, feet resting in his lap in a beautifully tender scene of work stress meets homely bliss. Meanwhile, down in Brooklyn, the line that single handedly surmises the sketchy severity of the situation is from the drivers’ foreman: “It isn’t illegal, if I say it is not”. 1981 was the acme of this climate of self-regulation and mobster ethic codes, with the most homicides and acts of violence recorded in NYC history.
A consistent turn from Selma’s David Oyelowo as DA Lawrence, charged with cleaning up the pollution within the oil industry does not distract from the primary focus upon the elegant leads. New York has become a glass-gleaming beacon of capitalist consumerism, cleaner and constantly towering, leaving behind the darker history depicted here. David Oyelowo’s Lawrence is no white knight precipitating this change. His complicit actions and persistent pressure are accumulated over years, representative of those within the force gradually transforming the city into its current state of fast food life, rather than a diet of death fast. Towing the line between right and wrong, Oyelowo’s character is not a flawless moral compass for the film. Good for a film in which the protagonist defends himself with the line “I have always taken the path that is most right”. Diplomatically speaking…
But before we update and exonerate ourselves too soon from a difficult truth, A Most Violent Year offers an immortalisation of these times when beige was the new black. It is both relevant now, but importantly locked in its era as a therapeutic time capsule for us to swallow. Imbibe carefully because mouths will be dry from the suspense and drama of a film that can ratchet through the gears in an instant. It merges drama with an edge of improvisation. The chase scene, as Abel stalks a stolen truck is better than any Bond. The jolting camera that haplessly frames a bobbing Isaac as he pursues the guilty party is an exhilarating detail betraying an eye for action. The real feel of these moments is wrapped within a reality of self-consciously framed, beautifully shot scenes that segue gloriously from barber shop door to tennis court wall. All maintains an aesthetic that represents a distillation of a chemical industry within a toxic NYC environment. While simultaneously producing a perfectly elegant gangster film masquerading under the misnomer of A Most Violent Year. Just don’t let the title put you off, people…Pseudonyms please!
*Must cite LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy and his flawless 2006 album, Sound of Silver. Groovy. 80s electro pioneers, Suicide are an inspiration to both Murphy and Alex Ebert, who produced the film’s claustrophobic score.