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 inĀ 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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Review – All Is Lost

More than anything, dialogue played a crucial role in transforming J.C. Chandor’s financial crisis drama Margin Call into a gripping and intelligent debut feature.

All Is Lost is cinema in its purest form, a visual poem of hope, despair, strength and weakness that will wash over you like a warm tide

All Is Lost is cinema in its purest form, a visual poem of hope, despair, strength and weakness that will wash over you like a warm tide

Conversely, in Chandor’s compelling and very moving follow-up, All Is Lost, it’s actions rather than words that drive the narrative forwards and give the film its raw, physical power.

What links both films are the sky-high stakes – livelihoods are on the line in Margin Call, while a man’s life hangs precariously in the balance in All Is Lost. Robert Redford plays the unnamed near-ancient mariner whose solo sailing journey turns into a desperate fight for survival when a stray shipping container rips a hole in the side of his boat.

The calm before the storm in All Is Lost

The calm before the storm in All Is Lost

A brutal storm turns a bad situation into something far worse and, still 1,700 miles from land and without any working means of communication, Redford’s mariner (described as “Our Man” in the closing credits) must rely on his resourcefulness and dwindling resolve if he has any hope of survival.

Redford’s casting is a masterstroke on Chandor’s part. An icon of cinema for five decades, Redford was the anti-establishment pin-up respected by the establishment, who has often been at his best playing mysterious loners.

The full scale of the problems for Robert Redford's unnamed protagonist emerge in All Is Lost

The full scale of the problems for Robert Redford’s unnamed protagonist emerge in All Is Lost

Far from resting on his laurels, All Is Lost is arguably the 77-year-old’s most daring and challenging role to date. Few actors are as intriguing to watch as Redford and, with little or no dialogue to get in the way, it frees him up to act with his gut.

It’s a brave and entirely naturalistic performance and takes the actor to places we’ve never seen him go before. Picture Redford and the Sundance Kid or Jay Gatsby will likely spring to mind – a fresh-faced icon of cinema. But here, that familiar shock of blonde hair is greying at the sides, while the physical disintegration he goes through over the course of the film is alarming. The film may take place over the course of eight days, but Redford appears to age several decades.

The storm hits hard in All Is Lost

The storm hits hard in All Is Lost

Although few words are spoken, sound plays an integral role in the film. We know the groaning, snapping sound that starts the movie spells big trouble for Our Man, while the terrible cacophony of the storm feels like a punishment for unexplained past deeds. Likewise, Alex Ebert’s elemental score drifts in and out of the film and never once tries to get in the way of the drama.

Things go from bad to worse for our nameless sailor in All Is Lost

Things go from bad to worse for our nameless sailor in All Is Lost

The title of the film derives from Redford’s opening voiceover (which accounts for almost all of the dialogue), wherein he seeks forgiveness from an unnamed person, presumably his wife and/or family (a wedding ring is pretty much the only back story we get for his character), before concluding that “all is lost”.

As to whether all is indeed lost come the ambiguous ending and the cut to white is clearly open to interpretation, but it’s worth playing over in your mind what Our Man has been forced to endure throughout his ordeal before making a final judgement.

All Is Lost is cinema in its purest form, a visual poem of hope, despair, strength and weakness that will wash over you like a warm tide.