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Film review: A Most Violent Year ***

By Preston Wilder

Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) has some problems. Someone is hijacking the trucks in his fuel-distribution business, beating up the drivers and taking the fuel. He’s sunk all his cash into a prime piece of land that’ll help the business by providing access to the river – but he only has 30 days to close the deal, or he loses everything. Worst of all, the DA is bringing charges against his company, claiming they’ve broken the law. His wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) is starting to lose it, but Abel stays calm: “I’ll take care of it,” he keeps saying.

Heroes tend to stay calm in the films of writer-director JC Chandor. Robert Redford was alone on a sinking ship in the middle of the Indian Ocean in All Is Lost but didn’t get hysterical, even having a shave – as if wanting to look his best – before sailing into a storm. The Wall Street big-shots in Margin Call faced financial meltdown by sitting down and talking it through, doing whatever it took. This is a cinema of problem-solving and Abel is a problem-solver, not a thug. At one point he’s talking to his lawyer and the lawyer suggests they take a walk outside, presumably to avoid prying ears – but Abel is indignant. Take a walk? Walk around “like f***in’ gangsters”? The industry around him is corrupt, but he wants to be clean. “We’re at war!” says Anna, but he shakes his head: “I’m not”.

A Most Violent Year – Chandor’s third film, and the most acclaimed – is a story of corruption, of course. When a hero claims to be virtuous, and committed to “the path that is most right”, it’s a given that he’s going to stray from that path; but corruption comes in many forms. One very American form is the tale of Michael Corleone in The Godfather – another man who was surrounded by criminality but wanted to rise above it; in the end he gave in to violence, the way of the world, and became very powerful, losing his soul as a result. Oscar Isaac looks like a young Al Pacino, as many have noted; his chin is sharper, and his nose more bulbous, but he has the same yearning, puppy-dog eyes. And of course the film has ‘Violent’ right there in the title. Yet Chandor, to his credit, doesn’t go the Godfather route, refusing the cheap gratification of having his hero lash out. Violence, after all, is a very inefficient method of problem-solving.

Abel is methodical, a businessman; he looks at the problem squarely, and does what needs to be done. This is a film that uses silence. Abel knows the power of silence, he uses it when making a sale: what you have to do, he instructs his employees, is stare at prospective clients silently – stare “longer than you should” – then make your move. A Most Violent Year is deliberately low-key. The light is muted: shadowed faces indoors, hazy winter sunlight outside. Music throbs in the background. The whole film seems to smoulder moodily. It’s a film of serious conversations, powerful men (it’s mostly men) negotiating quietly; the word ‘respect’ is frequently heard. Please know that I respect what you’re doing, Abel tells the DA, as a prelude to saying what he really wants to say.

It’s great that movies like this are still being made in Hollywood; indeed, Chandor seems to specialise in bringing off projects that would be laughed out of the room at a pitch meeting. A film about financial misconduct at a Wall Street firm, a film set at sea with a cast of one – and now a film where a violent situation gets worked out smoothly and maturely. Yet A Most Violent Year lacks a certain something – maybe a bit more madness, or maybe some outrageously clever move that’ll blindside the audience. A film like this is a game of chess; we need a bit of drama with the final checkmate.

Chandor’s point is more ironic – that “the path that is most right” is finally a pragmatic matter, not a moral precept. Abel’s a problem-solver: he’ll go down the path that solves the problem best, i.e. is most “right” in getting results. It’s a gritty cynicism that recalls American classics of the 70s and 80s (the film is set in 1981), the likes of Cutter’s Way or Prince of the City – but it’s also true that characters could be richer here (the wife is a shrew, giving the film its shot of hysteria) and the plotting is a little too matter-of-fact. How to make a film that’s grown-up and true to life, yet also exciting and visceral? That’s the toughest problem-solving act of all.

 

DIRECTED BY J.C. Chandor

STARRING Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo

US 2014               125 mins

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