New York, winter 1981 – a violent city, its most violent year; a subject handled with subtlety in JC Chandor’s latest film. A most violent gangster movie, it is not. Instead, it chronicles a conflict of a contemporary kind: passive, deferred, unaccountable and bloodless. The glamour and heartthrob of Scorcese and Copella’s Manhattan is swapped for East River’s cold industrial outcrops, the city shimmering in the distance. No gamblers, prostitutes and coke barons, this is a story of mystified criminality, off-screen and out of its protagonists’ hands.
Oscar Isaacs plays Abel Morales, a mid-level oil trader desperate to expand on his hard-earned success. He brokers a deal to secure a strategic trading post. He’s quickly boxed-in by faceless competitors and a police investigator, robbing his oil and his investors’ confidence. Abel’s wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), unromantic and indomitably frank, offsets Abel’s blinkered idealism. Their dynamic is made plain early on. Driving back from a restaurant, the couple hit a deer; they skid to a halt; Abel knows what to do, but tire iron in-hand, he fumbles. We hear gunshots. Anna stands beside him, smoke rising from her Beretta.
Critics have compared Chastain’s character with Lady Macbeth.
In a recent interview, she downplayed the comparison: ‘Lady Macbeth went crazy; Anna didn’t. I saw her more as Dick Cheney.’ No mystery, then, as to which statesmen Abel resembles; his unwavering vision of the American Dream projected onto a subterranean oil war, oblivious to its consequences; his entourage its silent combatants. And in an exchange between Abel and his lawyer, we realize his motivations aren’t just shallow, they’re entirely ephemeral. Why do you want this so badly? Abel misses the question. Because I’ve got my savings all tied up in this deal! No, not this, why do you want it? I’m not talking about that place [the property Abel plans to invest in] – why do you want it so much?’ Abel: [pause] I have no idea what you mean.
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This sense of aimlessness permeates the film. Abel and Anna’s relationship is its most compelling conflict, which, at times, dissipates inexplicably. And it’s very gradually paced. Abel’s fall from grace never reaches terminal velocity. Nonetheless, Chandor skillfully upcycles the gangster movie template, giving it substance and satirical bite. In Abel, we have the mob-boss fundamentals. He’s a headstrong self-starter from an immigrant background, a natural and convincing leader. But he’s lost sight of his struggle’s purpose and has no power in the eyes of his wife. He’s an inverted, neutered Michael Corleone, as incomprehensible as he is compelling – all charisma, no blood lust. Anna resembles Sharon Stone’s Ginger, Sam Rothstein’s fatefully conniving wife in Scorcese’s truly epic Casino. But again the core components are re-shuffled. There are moments of tenderness between them, and she adapts to Abel’s naivety.
The film’s look and sound is similarly conflicted. It’s mid-winter, but New York’s bathed in a soft, golden light, like a perpetual late summer’s evening. Alex Ebert’s soundtrack is both softly orchestral and synthetic, with wavering Moog drones undercutting solemn, stately themes on flute, organ and piano; again very Godfather, but subdued and distant. The film appears timeless and dreamlike. It could have been made in any recent decade, about any recent conflict – it’s a familiar story, but difficult to place exactly. No less than Chandor’s directorial debut, Margin Call, set during the early stages of the financial crisis, A Most Violent Year is a film about capitalism. It’s not the first film to reflect the crash in a crumbling business empire, but it stands apart from most with its whispered message of profit’s human cost. As Abel surveys the New York skyline from his East River fuel depot, he stands apart from Wall Street. He inhabits the place where its sweat and blood are spilt; somehow, his hands remain perfectly clean.