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J.C. Chandor’s surgical precision

Tom Shone reviews “A Most Violent Year”

Tom Shone | January 24th 2015

As Abel Morales, the oil distributor struggling to keep his business afloat in “A Most Violent Year”, Oscar Isaac wears a big camel-hair coat, looks people dead in the eye and speaks in the crisp, precise diction of a man who has learned that power comes with not raising your voice. “You must take the path that is most right,” he says—a lesson close to the heart of this sombre, slightly dry, urgent film about one man’s attempts not to become a gangster in the New York of 1981. Its director, J.C. Chandor, has chosen his location and period with great care. The drama stems from the fact that in the New York of 1981—a city that boasted more than 1,800 murders—there were probably more reasons for a struggling oil distributor to become a gangster than there were reasons not to. It’s a film about criminality’s slow, gravitational suck—the steady drip, drip, drip of difficulties that one day makes brushing past the law seem easier than waiting in line.   

The film works swiftly to hem Morales in. To start with, his trucks are being brutally hijacked and relieved of their oil—possibly by one of his competitors—and his drivers want guns to better defend themselves. But is that such a great idea with the nosy assistant district attorney (David Oyelowo) preparing to indict him on unspecified charges of corruption? “We may have pushed things a little far” admits his lawyer, played by a wonderfully shifty Albert Brooks, and it is part of the film’s precisely calibrated moral murk that we never find out what those charges are exactly, or how deserved. Finally, there is his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), a beautiful gorgon in figure-hugging Armani and with long ruby nails, itching to call in her mafioso brothers and father to sort things out. “You’re not going to like it when I get involved,” she purrs, like Jersey Shore’s answer to Lucrezia Borgia.

Her performance could easily have curled into camp and Chastain knows it. She nails things down tight, restraining an accent it must have been tempting to let loose, and wielding her heavy lipstick and false eyelashes with fierce control. It’s fast turning into Chastain’s métier, after making her film debut in Pacino’s “Wilde Salomé”: women who have tamed the tigress of their own sexuality to make it do their bidding—lion and tamer in one. She almost unbalances the film, whose biggest shock comes during a scene on a night-time stretch of road in which Anna takes charge. The role of Morales almost went to Javier Bardem, who pulled out after script changes he wanted were not agreed to. Isaac is a smaller man—he was the luckless folk singer in the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis”—but he makes it work for him here, adding a note of masculine beleagurement to his head-to-heads with his wife, with her casually emasculating calls for more violence. We watch him bend and bend, with genuine curiosity as to whether he will, or should, break.

It could be argued that we have been here before. “The Godfather”, too, was about Michael Corleone’s best efforts not to become a gangster like his father, and certainly Isaac’s subdued intensity and precise diction recall Pacino in Coppola’s film, while Bradford Young’s sombre, sooty cinematography—lots of dark rooms, lit by a single light source—summons the shade of Gordon Willis. But while Coppola made an Italian family saga—an epic of blood and pasta—we do not find out Morales’s actual nationality until late into the film. Chandor is a minimalist, with a taste for the details of deal-making. In “Margin Call” (2011), he managed to make one 36-hour period on the trading floor of a Wall Street firm as sub-prime mortgages imploded stand in for the entire 2008 financial collapse. 

Chandor followed that movie’s ragged polyphony with the opposite: “All Is Lost” (2013), a minimal, almost wordless piece of pure cinema with Robert Redford adrift in a sinking boat on a vast inhospitable sea. The more one thinks about that movie, the more it seems like the allegorical hub for all of Chandor’s work. He makes movies about men trying to keep their heads above the waterline. He has an old-fashioned commitment to the idea of Fate, and delights in protagonists beset by multiple pressure points, all springing a leak.

Maybe “delight” is too strong a word. “A Most Violent Year” features a couple of chases, one that starts on the 59th Street bridge and ends with exhausted men panting, and another inside a tunnel so dark and dusty you cannot even see the brake lights of the vehicle being chased. But you could never accuse Chandor of over-excitability. He’s a cool head, surgically precise even as he tackles the more unfathomable drives of men. “Why do you want all this?” asks the lawyer at one point, as they survey the Queens-waterfront property that would put Morales top of the heap. Morales gives him three answers, each prosaic, each rebuffed. “No, why do you want all this?” the lawyer asks again. Morales shakes his head: “I don’t understand the question.”

A Most Violent Year Out now in Britain and America

Read more Tom Shone's take on this year's Oscar nominations, including his pick for Best Picture

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