Review – A Most Violent Year

Heating oil may not be the sexiest narrative device for hard-bitten cinema, but J.C. Chandor’s gripping paean to the crime dramas of yesteryear crackles with a slow-burning tension.

An assured step forward in Chandor's so-far unblemished copybook, A Most Violent Year is a timeless and engrossing chapter in America's cinematic crime genre

An assured step forward in Chandor’s so-far unblemished copybook, A Most Violent Year is a timeless and engrossing chapter in America’s cinematic crime genre

While the title suggests otherwise, A Most Violent Year eschews the brutality of Scorsese-aping gangster flicks for a more unconventional and understated drama about an immigrant businessman doing everything in his power to avert bloodshed and avoid being reduced to the level of those who would seek his downfall.

The violent year in question is New York’s annus horribilis of 1981, when 120,000 robberies and more than 2,100 murders were reported. Amidst such chaos, Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) struggles to keep the plates spinning as he runs his up-and-coming heating oil firm, while his impetuous wife Anna (a formidable Jessica Chastain) looks after the books.

Things start to turn really nasty for Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) in A Most Violent Year

Things start to turn really nasty for Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) in A Most Violent Year

The hijacking of the company’s trucks by unknown assailants and an investigation into alleged price-fixing and other dirty tricks by ambitious Assistant District Attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo) adds to the pressure on Abel, who enters into a potentially dangerous business deal with a group of Jewish Chassidim that could lead to his becoming a major player in the city.

When trouble visits their door, Abel’s reasonable business-minded approach is called into question by Anna, whose family connections seem to suggest violence is no stranger (“You’re not going to like what’ll happen once I get involved”).

Ms 45: Anna Morales (Jessica Chastain) in A Most Violent Year

Ms 45: Anna Morales (Jessica Chastain) in A Most Violent Year

This reveals itself in a key scene when a deer runs out in front of their car and, before Abel can bring himself to put it out of its misery with a tyre iron, Anna puts three rounds into the poor beast having decided that “she’s going to do something about it”.

In spite of their different outlooks on what needs to be done to survive and thrive, they nevertheless make for a formidable team, with Anna the power behind the throne as she propels her husband to greater heights.

Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) with attorney Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks) in A Most Violent Year

Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) with attorney Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks) in A Most Violent Year

As well as looking like a Godfather-era Al Pacino, Isaac’s softly spoken tones also bring to mind Michael Corleone, while his sharp suits and perfectly tailored camel-hair coat exude an authority in keeping with his measured demeanour.

In spite of his aversion to violence, Abel is not one to be pushed around, though and his ambition is unrelenting, as his attorney Andrew Walsh (a barely recognisable Albert Brooks) discovers when he asks him “why do you want all this so much?”, only to receive a blank stare and the response “I have no idea what you mean”.

Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) makes his cast against Assistant District Attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo) in A Most Violent Year

Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) makes his cast against Assistant District Attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo) in A Most Violent Year

The singular image of oil oozing like blood from an oil tank pierced by a bullet speaks to the fascinating battle Abel faces in A Most Violent Year. When violence erupts, it is sudden and striking, notably during a freeway set piece involving truck driver Julian (Elyes Gabel) that spirals out of control.

Comparisons to Sidney Lumet’s 70s/early 80s work, most notably Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Prince And The City (1981), and the output of Lumet’s torch-bearer James Gray (2000’s The Yards being the best example) are plain to see, but Chandor is no magpie and by making the strongest and most intimidating character in the film a woman subverts the normal expectations of the crime drama.

Scenes are juxtaposed between dimly lit rooms (a nod to The Godfather) and a yellow-tinged New York winter courtesy of Bradford Young’s crisp and moody cinematography, while the lack of a consistent score (an extended car, foot and subway chase is made more dramatic by the dearth of music) is refreshing.

An assured step forward in Chandor’s so-far unblemished copybook, A Most Violent Year is a timeless and engrossing chapter in America’s cinematic crime genre. As Abel would say: “The result is never in question; just what path you take to get there.”

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Four Frames – The Godfather: Part II (1974)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the internationally recognised magazine and website that shows film in a wider context. It’s the festive season and The Big Picture is running a series of features and reviews with the theme of ‘family’. This piece is part of the Four Frames section, wherein the importance of four significant shots are discussed, in this case from Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘family’ classic The Godfather: Part II.

Keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer. As for family, well…

Towards the end of Francis Ford Coppola’s tenebrous portrait of a family eating itself from the inside, an aghast Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) asks his adopted brother Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) why he wants to wipe everyone out when he’s already won, to which he’s cooly informed: “I don’t feel I have to wipe everybody out, Tom, just my enemies.”

The Godfather: Part II

Just who isn’t an enemy in Don Corleone’s paranoid mind by this time is open to debate, but any hope of saving his corrupted soul from damnation evaporates when he has his own brother Fredo (Jon Cazale) killed. Fredo is a dead man walking from the moment Michael discovers his weak-willed brother has ties to Florida crime lord Herman Roth (Lee Strasberg), a former associate of their father whom Michael is convinced wants him dead.

The die is cast when, during a New Year’s Eve party in Havana, Michael dramatically embraces his brother and says “I know it was you… you broke my heart”. Despite seemingly acquiescing to his sister Connie’s (Talia Shire) pleas for Fredo to be brought back into the family fold following their mother’s death, it’s mere window dressing; Fredo is nothing more than an enemy in Michael’s eyes that needs to be “wiped out”.

The Godfather: Part II

The Shakespearian tragedy of this moment is lent even greater weight when Coppola flashes back to a Corleone family dinner party almost 20 years earlier in which a wide-eyed Michael defiantly resists taking after his brothers into the ‘family business’ by announcing that he’s signed up for the Marines following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Ironically, Fredo is the only one to support his decision.

This scene evokes the Michael we meet at the start of The Godfather (1972); a man determined to live a life governed by his American future rather than his Sicilian past, which is exemplified by his relationship with Kay Adams (Diane Keaton). However, just when he thought he was out, the family business pulls him back in.

The Godfather: Part II

When Kay reminds him of his promise to make the family’s affairs legitimate within five years of becoming Don (“that was seven years ago”), Michael swears he’s doing all he can. However, cinematographer Gordon Willis’ low-lighting tells another story. Indeed, darkness gradually envelops the film as the light of hope and redemption is extinguished.

Michael comes to see Kay as little more than a vessel to produce a son in order to continue the Corleone line and a revealing moment comes when, instead of enquiring about his wife’s health after receiving news of her miscarriage, he demands to know whether it was a boy.

The Godfather: Part II

A later confrontation accentuates the irrecoverable chasm that has opened up between them. So blinded by what he has become, he is indifferent to Kay’s heartbreaking admission that “at this moment I feel no love for you at all”, but reacts with volcanic rage when she drops a bombshell about their lost child. When Michael closes the door on Kay, he is also closing the door on any future happiness.

While the family business thrives, Michael’s other family lays in ruins, a victim of ruthless ambition and rampant neurosis. Sat alone at the end of the film, dead-eyed and paralysed by vengeful enmity, we see what it has cost him.