A Most Violent Year
In J.C. Chandor's A Most Violent Year, Abel (Oscar Isaac) a fuel-oil businessman trying to expand his empire, tells a potential investor that he strives to follow "the path that is most right" in a situation. "The Path That Is Most Right" isn't a very sexy title, and Do the Right Thing was taken, so A Most Violent Year it is! But Abel is purposely non-violent.
That's not to say he's an innocent; his oil transport business has been cooking the books for a decade. But while New York City is gripped in a 12-month span of record-breaking levels of violence and everyone is pushing him to man-up, Abel decides that the right path is not to engage in that violence. Even if it’s for protection. That distinction is what makes Chandor’s A Most Violent Year the most intriguing and exciting. But it also makes it decidedly low-key.
This is essentially a gangster picture—there are meetings of fellow shady businessmen at tables trying to get peace; Abel’s wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain) is the daughter of an organized crime boss—that plays with your expectation that warfare is going to break out. Conventionally, you’d think that Chandor is just arranging the set-pieces of home invasion and armed robberies to put Abel in a vice. You expect that eventually he will arm his drivers to protect themselves from robberies, that he’ll put out a hit, etc. But the more that that doesn’t happen, the more it’s clear that Chandor is showing that pacifism can indeed work. But this isn’t a kumbaya flick.
Abel gets a whole lotta grief about passing a fist. Anna calls him a “pussy” for not buying a gun to protect their family. The trucker teamster (Peter Gerety) threatens to not send his drivers in to work unless he can give them permission to carry a weapon. His fellow book-skimming competitors (including Alessandro Nivola and Carcosa’s grim reaper Glenn Fleshler) are waiting for his business to go under, and would love for it to go down in a fiery inferno of gunshots. Man up, they all want him to do.
We’re introduced to Abel’s altruism when he’s in the middle of completing a land deal that’d open up a larger swath of the New York oil market for him. So perhaps he’s just a pacifist for dotted line purposes; he’s got 30 days to land the money to complete the sale. And a lawsuit from a driver’s errant bullet or a bullet of his own would put that in jeopardy.
It’s 1981. It’s a Reagan year. But despite the awesome Dick Tracy felt coat that Abel wears and all the Gordon Willis-level lighting (who lensed The Godfather series) by ace cinematographer Bradford Young, A Most Violent Year feels very much concerned with the now. Obama is continuously raked over the coals for not being bullish enough in foreign policy, delivering a message of force, of violence, of American hard-fists. We’re told that men aren’t really men any more. But what makes a man? Clubbing another man to protect his family? Shooting a police officer for family vengeance, and taking the cannoli (a la The Godfather)? Setting bear-traps for potential home invaders (a la Straw Dogs)?
If all that non-action sounds boring, it does start to creep in, but then Chandor stages one of the most exciting car chases of recent years. Following tanker tail lights through a tunnel, funneling dust and rocks (pursuing, surprisingly, Christopher Abbott, who's far from his Girls character here because he’s gone full on Drugstore Cowboy-era James Le Gros)—the chase becomes a fantastic centerpiece.
Also fantastic is Isaac, who is on a tear lately (Inside Llewyn Davis, The Two Faces of January, Star Wars) and appears to be approaching a Joaquin Phoenix-other-worldly level modern zeitgeist. Here he looks the part of Al Pacino in The Godfather, but his part is very different. Abel doesn’t want to be pulled in—and there’s an intensity in his resistance—but he’s also a salesman, and he has to convince others that he has their best interests in mind. And Isaac brings an extra charisma and American empire bootstraps allure to his performance.
But Chandor's sense of time is a little off. He gives us the framing device of 30 days to secure the land that Abel and Anna are attempting to purchase to increase his empire, but then out of nowhere, Anna says, “We have two days.” As Anna, Chastain is blonde and has a New Jersey accent so you know she’s tougher than usual. While she is very good (and adept at not hamming it up when she talks about her father, her connections, her “whore” gun, etc.) she’s pushed to the sidelines for the second half of the film, where she holds a secret that makes things a little too tidy.
It’s that tidiness and tardiness that keeps A Most Violent Year from being great. But it’s most certainly good. And after Margin Call and All is Lost, A Most Violent Year solidifies Chandor as more than a promising American filmmaker. He’s now a proven salesman. Keep following that path, Chandor, and thanks for giving peace a chance to sprout from a would-be gangster flick.
Brian Formo is a contributing writer. He's also a pacifist. You can bully him here.