You don’t make a movie about Wall Street in 2011 unless you’re saying something about what’s going down in America. J.C. Chandor did that with the gripping drama Margin Call, taking us inside the offices of a fictional investment bank on the literal eve of the financial collapse that (temporarily?) crippled the United States in this new millennium.
Chandor’s next film, Deepwater Horizon, due later this year, will explore the worst oil spill in U.S. history. It’s obvious that the man has a bone to pick with capitalism, a fact also apparent in his third and, to date, best film, A Most Violent Year.
A Most Violent Year is set in New York City in 1981, but its themes are hardly limited to that era. As most savvy period pieces tend to be, it’s as much a film about right now as it is about the 1980s, though the look and feel of it do inspire a nostalgia for a time (and cinematic era) long past. It brings to mind some of the most iconic and lauded movies of all time, The Godfather and GoodFellas and Scarface, and also The Sopranos, the television show widely regarded as the pinnacle of the medium. It’s a bit premature to hold A Most Violent Year up to those classics now, but at the very least it holds its own in the same conversation. The Godfather was not just a story about gangsters, nor was The Sopranos, nor is A Most Violent Year. These are stories that explore everyday Americana on a cutthroat edge. Maybe these characters are more violent than us — more likely to go to prison, more likely to die a gruesome, early death at the hands of some low-life scoundrel. Then again, maybe not. When you live in a violent place during a violent time, you never can tell.
A Most Violent Year does not actually take place over the course of a year. Its scope is instead set around a single winter month, as Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) makes a deal with some property owners for a piece of land that is crucial to the expansion of his heating oil business. It is, in fact, a bad time to be in Abel’s business, as someone has been hijacking his trucks and stealing the fuel, selling it to his competitors and crushing his bottom line. But Abel refuses to arm his truck drivers, knowing that this will only start a cycle of violence and get people killed on both sides of the fight. It would also seriously harm his reputation and threaten his own freedom and well-being, and that of his family. His employees are scared shitless, his home is invaded in the middle of the night — even his attorney wants him to take a stand against the crooks. Abel won’t have it. He makes tough choices that his associates, employees, and wife may not agree with, always in the interest of preventing violence and preserving the life he has so carefully built for himself.
But it’s a violent world, and it’s a violent year, and sometimes violence is unavoidable. The film’s title refers to the climbing crime rate in New York at this time — New York City was once an exceedingly dangerous place to be, with 1981 being one of its worst moments. Throughout the film, radio reports remind us of crimes occurring all around the city, acts of violence that have nothing to do with Abel Morales or his business but are targeted at innocent, faceless people nearby. Violence is everywhere and could happen to anyone — and chances are, sooner or later it’ll happen to you.
Several acts of aggression are carried out in A Most Violent Year, but they aren’t as frequent or extreme as the title might suggest. This is not GoodFellas or even The Godfather, and it sure as hell isn’t Scarface.(Though, like Tony Montana, Abel hails from a Spanish-speaking nation.) Those gangster movies cited above bathe in bloodshed in a way that A Most Violent Year does not; violence is threatened more often than it is carried out, though that doesn’t mean there isn’t doom in the air throughout. The first murder in A Most Violent Year is actually a mercy killing, directed at an unfortunate animal that happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. A Most Violent Year has a lower body count than virtually any other crime thriller you’ve ever seen; Abel is more businessman than gangster, but that’s a line that is easily blurred. Abel Morales is trying to make it in America, and you can’t do that without becoming a target — and doesn’t everyone have a right to self-defense? Every success comes at someone’s expense — sometimes one’s own; more often somebody else’s.
The question in A Most Violent Year is this: who will pay for Abel Morales’ success?
A Most Violent Year is as much about doing business in America as it is about violence, but A Most Profitable Year just doesn’t have the same ring to it. Abel considers himself an honest businessman, but he does have something to hide, or else the D.A. (David Oyelowo) wouldn’t be making a case against him. His lawyer Andrew (Albert Brooks) has fewer scruples than Abel, and his wife and bookkeeper Anna (Jessica Chastain) also seems willing to cut corners. (She’s also daughter and sister to ruthless gangsters herself, spoken of often but never seen.) When a gun, dropped by a no-good prowler, is discovered by one of their daughters in the front yard, Anna pushes Abel to “do something.” She wants him to arm himself, just as his associates want him to give guns his drivers. Because in America, the safest you’ll ever feel is in the presence of a deadly weapon… right?
Like The Godfather, A Most Violent Year is about a man who spent his life striving not to become a gangster, only to find himself backed into a corner by circumstance. When his family is in jeopardy, can he still live up to this moral code? But A Most Violent Year is more like The Sopranos in the ways it gets into the nitty-gritty of Abel’s business dealings with various other head honchos and gangster-types, painting a vivid picture of who wants what and why. A Most Violent Year is populated by well-drawn, believable characters, each with their own agenda, each with their own interests at heart. Abel Morales is no Henry Hill, Tony Soprano, or Don Corleone, but he’s living in a Scarface world. He is an immigrant who made good for himself. He has a business he’s passionate about and a family he loves. He will not let his American dream die a quiet death.
A Most Violent Year is filled to the brim with interesting things to say about capitalism — about who must suffer so that the Abel Moraleses of the world can prosper. It uses violence to make a point, but that’s only an extreme angle on the world we’re all living in. Morals are difficult, perhaps impossible, to hold onto when you want to get ahead. And we all want to get ahead. This concept wasn’t born in the 80s, or even in America, but there may be no better backdrop for such a tale. The Twin Towers are seen from a distance in the background in a few key shots, not so much to remind us of the violence that occurred there in 2001, but as a reminder of what they represented, what that attack sought to affront. Money. Power. Security. Success. Manhattan is always seen from a distance in Chandor’s film, set primarily in Queens. Because Manhattan is something to aspire to, a better place on the horizon. It’s what Abel and Anna, along with everyone else, are chasing. Money. Power. Security. Success.
In the United States of America, every year is a most violent year for somebody. The methods may have changed, but the rules haven’t. We still do business in the exact same way, promising what we can when it benefits us and backing out when it stops. We borrow money we don’t possess, we call in favors wherever we’re able, we let go of anyone who threatens to drag us down. Abel hopes to avoid violence, but his success, in its own way, is an act of violence against those he needs to do the dirty work for him. To get to the top, one must leave the bottom-dwellers behind. In one killer scene, Abel shares his strategy for convincing customers that his business is top-of-the-line. Ask for tea, not coffee. Pie, not cake. Always go for the fancier option. It explains his fancy house, fancy clothes, and fancy wife, too.A Most Violent Year feels like an epic, perhaps because it reminds us of bigger, brassier stories set in this world, or maybe because Abel Morales is a stand-in for every American who ever strove to get ahead. (Basically, all of them.) It’s this year’s Wolf Of Wall Street, but Abel is neither sheep nor wolf — unless he’s forced to choose, and then he’ll pick the latter. Chandor’s direction is superb, emulating films from this era without totally aping them, and his writing manages to get his points across in the most obvious way without ever being obtuse. You’d need to be daft to not pick up on the themes of this movie, but the world he creates is tactile and real. He’s helped greatly by a towering lead performance by Oscar Isaac, who does more with a confident stare than most actors could do with a bombastic monologue, and the phenomenal-as-usual Jessica Chastain, who has a reasonably small but powerful part to play here. (Women are typically sidelined in such films, and while A Most Violent Year is primarily a male-dominated affair, at least Anna gets some juicy business of her own.) Alexander Ebert, who scored Chandor’s All Is Lost, returns here with equal triumph.
As much as it may remind of the great movies of yore, A Most Violent Year is no mere imitation of better films that came before — it’s enough of a novelty to see a crime story about a man who refuses to commit crimes, amongst other unique aspects that are all Chandor’s own. Abel is very, very careful to ensure that everything he does is on the up-and-up, legally speaking; moral crimes, on the other hand, one can’t really be held accountable for. He is a good man living in a shady world, convinced that he’s the exception to the rule; it’s the system that’s screwed, not him. (And who hasn’t told that convenient little lie to themselves?) He navigates through the moral murk and deceit, making compromises we’re all familiar with.
We’d all like to live in the idealized America — land of plenty, free of violence. Abel tries really hard to, but the people around him know that he isn’t, and Abel will learn that over the course of this story. His previous films were solid, but with A Most Violent Year, J.C. Chandor announces himself as a writer and filmmaker to be reckoned with. The man obviously knows his Coppola and Scorsese, but he also knows a little something about modern day America, too. A Most Violent Year has more to say in one scene than most films do in their entire running time. It’s a most excellent movie. *