A Most Violent Year

Art & Culture

J.C.Chandor made a great debut film, Margin Call, and an impressive follow up – All Is Lost. His third film is another change of pace, which is impressive without being brilliant. It works for the first 75% of the film, but loses its grip towards the end.

Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is an ambitious man. A Hispanic immigrant to New York, he has started a successful heating oil business which is under threat from his rivals, who have no scruples in doing whatever they can to knock him and his business off their stride. This mostly involves hijacking the lorries, and stealing the oil. Where are the cops, you ask? Well, the year is 1981, and as the title suggests, there's a lot of bad stuff going on in NY, and oil hijacking is low on the list of law enforcement priorities.

Worse still, the DA is sniffing around, trying to put together an indictment for fraudulent activities. But the biggest problem of all is that is happening at a time when Morales has just 30 days to find $1.5 million to pay for a new site for his company. And if he doesn't come through with the money, he loses the very large deposit that he has put down. It's a race-against-time movie, combined with a morality tale and a thriller. There are shades of The French Connection, The Godfather and the films that Sidney Lumet made, like Prince of The City, and underneath the surface, you can see echoes of Macbeth, especially in the brilliant performance of Jessica Chastain as Abel's wife, Anna. She is by some way the best thing in the film, and one of the disappointments is the way her character fades from view towards the end of the film.

Morales is in a situation where he is surrounded by enemies but doesn't know who they are. Matters are complicated by the fact that he wants to run his business righteously. He doesn't want to arm his drivers against attack; he doesn't want to use the influence that Anna can call on via her father and brother (the unspoken implication is that they are Mafia). It astonishes him that Lawrence, the DA (David Oyelowo) is gunning for him. Nonetheless, he is willing to conceal boxes of paperwork when Lawrence comes calling, if only because Anna says that she hasn't had a chance to look through them.

Is he really a moral man, or just someone who wants to think well of himself? It seems to us inevitable that he will succumb to using the methods that everyone else does, because the pressures on him are so enormous, and he is more determined not to be beaten than he is to do the right thing. All this comes to a head via a character called Julian, one of Morales' lorry drivers, who is hijacked at the beginning of the film. His character and the narrative that surrounds him, is the weakest part of the film, leading to an unsatisfactory and somewhat disappointing climax, that left me feeling ever so slightly short changed.

The film seems to be building up to a dramatic finale, but when it arrives, it doesn't pay off in the way we've been led to expect. I felt that the lurking menace embodied by Anna and her connections was alluded to throughout, but it never manifests itself, and she becomes a secondary character – whereas up to that point, she has been the most powerful person in the film.

Credit to Chandor for his willingness and ability to switch from one movie genre to another. He is a director with skill, versatility and ambition. I enjoyed this film, but was not fully satisfied by it.


Phil Raby 

Front Row Films 

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