'A Most Violent Year' Takes a Somber Look at the Innards of the American Dream

J. C. Chandor's film probes the nuances of the capitalist system, exposes the mechanisms of power that drive it, and displays the weak points that reveal its moral vagueness.

A Most Violent Year Written and directed by J. C. Chandor; with Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Albert Brooks, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola, Elyes Gabel, Catalina Sandino Moreno, David  Margulies

How – and if – survival becomes possible is the shared theme of the first three movies by director J. C. Chandor, who has emerged as one of the most intriguing filmmakers working in America today. “A Most Violent Year” has ties to Chandor’s debut feature, the 2011 “Margin Call,” which followed one day and night inside a New York investment house in 2008, on the brink of the world financial crisis. “Margin Call” remains the best picture to date that explores the roots of that crisis and exposes the workings of the capitalist mechanism, with all its power, ploys, compromises and weaknesses. In his new movie Chandor returns to New York, but his focus this time is the more distant past: 1981, remembered as the most violent year in the city’s history (time and again we hear news broadcasters reporting on the violent crimes that have taken place). In 2013, in between these two pictures, Chandor made “All Is Lost,” a one-actor film starring Robert Redford as a man whose yacht is left stranded in the middle of the ocean after an accident.

Chandor’s intelligent, original screenplay for “A Most Violent Year” takes us back to the American business world, and specifically to that part of it where business, crime and law collide, infiltrate each other and (more than they actually impact one another) color each other’s images. There have been several recent movies about this encounter –Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” and David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” come to mind – but Chandor’s narrative and visual strategies are different. So is his hero, Abel Morales, who looks like an elegant gangster – but is not one. Rather, he is a businessman who wants to do right, but that is not easy. Expertly played by the charismatic Oscar Isaac (who already shone in Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Inside Llewyn Davis”), Abel is a thoroughly ambivalent figure, as ambivalent as the reality in which he acts. Through him, “A Most Violent Year” becomes a kind of fable about the possibility of maintaining your integrity in a capitalist world.

Abel is a successful businessman who wears fine suits, drives a luxury car, and shares an elegant home with his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), in an exclusive part of New York State. He owns a fleet of oil delivery trucks, and his success antagonizes and mobilizes a host of rivals, Italian and Jewish, who resent his encroachment on their territory. Abel’s drivers are attacked by unknown assailants, and the oil on his trucks is sold to others. Moreover, Abel buys an abandoned East River dock from Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) businessmen, in order to gain easier access to the oil tankers. He gives the sellers a down payment and promises to deliver the remaining $1.5 million in 30 days. If he does not, the deal is off; he will lose the advance and the owners will be able to sell the dock to his competitors. And if that were not enough, an ambitious district attorney (David Oyelowo), who does not believe in Abel’s honesty (or maybe he does, but it doesn’t matter), is eager to indict him for fraud.

At a distance

Chandor’s movie follows the negotiations Abel conducts with numerous characters, all of them well crafted, as he tries to find a way out of his predicament. There to help him are his longtime attorney (Albert Brooks) and his wife, Anna, herself the daughter of a Brooklyn gangster family and her husband’s accountant (her family background, which has taught her how to use a gun, proves useful on several occasions). Their passionate relationship combines love with dreams of money and status (Chastain, appearing as a well-groomed blonde this time, is good as always, and her performance is an ideal counterpart to Isaac’s).

Abel will not sell out his principles, but “A Most Violent Year” does not romanticize his insistence in a sanctimonious way. That’s just who Abel is, and the movie capably documents his dilemmas about his beliefs and the possibility of living up to them. Abel refuses to resort to the methods of a gangster – refuses, in effect, to be a gangster. Much of the movie’s power lies in the way it occasionally evokes the memory of (rather than explicitly alludes to) some of the great gangster movies of all time, primarily Francis Ford Coppola’s first two “Godfather” films and Brian De Palma’s “Scarface.” While there is a chase scene and a few gunfights, the suspense focuses mainly on Abel’s mind, soul and actions. Even where that “action” is concerned, Chandor prefers to remain at a distance. Abel is not a movie hero who sweeps us along, but rather one who demands that we observe and decipher him. In that sense, “A Most Violent Year” – perhaps the last to arrive of the several excellent American movies released toward the end of 2014 – is a bold creation that calls on its viewers to concentrate and respond to Chandor’s vision.

Chandor’s gifts go beyond his fine writing and his ability to guide actors; he is also an excellent director, who in all three movies shows a knack for shaping a physical reality so that it exposes an inner essence. “A Most Violent Year” is bathed in a yellowish light that complements Abel’s elegant coat, and much of the movie takes place in abandoned urban sites that seem to be just waiting for an entrepreneur. Many scenes are at first shot from a distance, situating the characters in the landscape before moving in closer; only the negotiation scenes are mostly in extreme close-up, stressing their ambivalent intimacy.

“A Most Violent Year” avoids the biggest pitfall in its path: it does not try to offer us the story of a capitalist with integrity. As he showed in “Margin Call,” Chandor is too smart to rely on a simplistic plot formula that divides capitalism into “good guys” and “bad guys.” Integrity here is not a quality that defines its bearer, but rather a tool Abel uses to try and survive as a businessman and a person. The story is not about salvation – such a concept is foreign to Chandor’s world – but about existing alongside an integrity that is constantly being put to the test. The result is one of the most astute films to probe the nuances of the capitalist system, expose the mechanisms of power – both legal and illegal – that drive it, and display the weak points that reveal its moral vagueness. Even the ending of the movie, which might seem too easy, demonstrates this same vagueness. “A Most Violent Year” is therefore a most excellent film.