Four stars. Rated R, for profanity and violence
By Derrick Bang
Writer/director J.C. Chandor burst on the scene with 2011’s riveting Margin Call, a fictionalized depiction of how one Wall Street investment firm — Lehman Brothers, in all but name — likely kick-started the 2008 U.S. financial crisis. Although primarily a talking-heads discussion among analysts looking to save their own careers, the dialogue and character interaction unfolded with the crisp intensity of a David Mamet play: in other words, not the slightest bit boring.
Chandor obviously enjoys the challenge of creating and then dissecting characters under pressure, and in A Most Violent Year he has found another grim “historical moment” in which to build and populate a drama undoubtedly typical of the time and place. And if his new film lacks the razor’s-edge focus and intensity of Margin Call, it nonetheless belongs in the worthy company of thoughtful organized crime dramas such as the Godfather trilogy and Once Upon a Time in America.
Indeed, watching Chandor’s new film, I frequently was reminded of Al Pacino’s iconic line from Godfather 3: “Just when I thought I was out ... they pull me back in.”
Except that Violent Year’s Abel Morales is trying desperately to remain out in the first place, as events conspire to make that impossible.
The story takes place during a single winter month in 1981 New York: a time when Big Apple mayhem had hit ghastly levels, between gang killings, mob family violence, record-breaking robberies, vandalized subway cars and all manner of street crime. Chandor’s characters never stray too far from a radio during the course of his film, and the constant litany of reported murders and vicious misconduct becomes something of a sidebar soundtrack to Alex Ebert’s somber orchestral score.
Against this grim backdrop, we meet Abel (Oscar Isaac) en route to the most important financial transaction of his career: a negotiation to buy some waterfront property that would significant boost the long-term growth of his fledgling heating-oil business. He gets the deal, but it comes with a daunting kicker: This down payment must be followed by the full balance within 30 days, no extensions, or the arrangement is off ... and the initial deposit forfeited.
Sadly, Abel already is in trouble; his trucks have been getting hijacked brazenly, in broad daylight and on busy city streets, by gun-toting thugs who beat up the defenseless drivers. The union boss wants the drivers armed, even if illegally; Abel, angrily defending the “kinder, gentler, better” image that he has worked hard to create, refuses.
Chandor cleverly reduces this particular dilemma from the abstract to the very personal, by focusing on Abel’s interaction with Julian (Elyes Gabel), a young immigrant driver who looks up to his boss, but is terrified of enduring another assault like the one we witness. This grants an early indication of the struggle taking place within Abel’s soul: a sincere desire to be worthy of his employee’s devotion, while at the same time trying to remain true to his own ethical boundaries.
Except that Abel is fooling himself, and we know it, even if he doesn’t. He purchased his business five years earlier from his wife Anna’s (Jessica Chastain) mobbed-up father, no doubt at a very advantageous price. Abel’s so-called honorable intentions notwithstanding, one wonders how he could build a “clean” business from such corrupt origins.
Additionally, Abel is fully aware that their books are cooked to some degree: in his mind an “acceptable” margin. And yet he fails to acknowledge — or perhaps even perceive — the hypocrisy operating here, although the far more pragmatic Anna certainly gets it. But even her rising fury, as events escalate out of control, cannot dim Abel’s stubborn insistence that they can successfully navigate the mounting crises his way.
On top of all his other naïve assumptions, Abel never acknowledges the elephant in the room: the blindingly obvious fact that he would have been killed long ago by one (or more) of his jealous, syndicate-embedded competitors, were it not for the fact that they all live in fear of potential reprisals by Anna’s family.
Bad as things are becoming, Abel nonetheless retains control — of a sort — until he gets hit by the proverbial back-breaker: advance notice of indictments by a district attorney (David Oyelowo) determined to address trucking/fuel oil corruption. If the indictments land, they could jeopardize the bank loan that Abel needs to complete his deal.
As Chandor did so brilliantly in Margin Call, he depicts these various conflicts and calamities via intimate, intense conversations between two, perhaps three or four people; we’re expected to extrapolate how resulting decisions will play out on the larger scale. (It’s refreshing to find a director who respects our intelligence.)
And while we can perhaps respect Abel for his idealism — even if tarnished — we also can’t imagine how he’ll escape the crocodiles invading his little swamp. Chandor and editor Ron Patane maintain an unsettling and increasingly tense atmosphere; even though actual violence is minimal (and refreshingly restrained), the threat of same frequently leaves us breathless.
We get worked up pretty early, late one night, as the family dog hears something in the huge home that Abel has purchased for his family. Worse yet is when Anna returns home one afternoon to find their youngest daughter playing with a loaded gun that she found in the bushes. Talk about heart-stoppers...
Chandor loves cross-cutting, which also builds suspense and anxiety: never better than when Abel passionately defends his vision yet again, in a comfortable office setting, while Julian, reluctantly back on the road, sees another pair of approaching goons in his side-view mirror.
Isaac is marvelous throughout, donning flawed integrity with the same relaxed comfort that Abel displays while wearing his ubiquitous tailored topcoat. The film is laden with marvelous chats, conversations and soliloquies by Abel, all of which Isaac delivers with the snake-oil sincerity of a master salesman.
Indeed, a particular standout comes when Abel coaches three newly hired college grads on the fine art of closing a sale during door-to-door cold calls. It’s a marvelous sequence: brilliantly written by Chandor, whose psychologically astute dialogue is delivered persuasively by Isaac. The three young recruits never say a word, but their expressions build to a near-religious epiphany, listening to Abel.
They don’t merely drink the Kool-Aid; they’d likely insist on having the recipe.
Chastain’s Anna is the antithesis of Isaac’s calm and controlled Abel; she’ll act impetuously, where he’ll wait and consider options (a disparity cleverly illustrated by their differing reactions to dealing with an injured deer they’ve struck while driving on a deserted nighttime road). Chastain makes Anna an intriguingly complex character: a woman who genuinely seems to love her husband, and respect him — to a point — but who also believes herself the stronger, more pragmatic half of their marriage.
And we wonder, more than once, if the point might be reached where Anna decides to take matters into her own hands. Would she turn on Abel? Chastain’s vulpine grin gives us plenty of reason for doubt.
Oyelowo, currently wowing audiences as Martin Luther King in Selma, is quietly forceful as this story’s crusading DA. His “discussions” with Abel are riveting: two actors speaking softly, and with steely eyed intensity, as we hang on every word. Again, these scenes, and their dialogue, are constructed cleverly: conversations more important for what’s being said beneath the surface, than for the bland negotiations topside.
Albert Brooks is both charming and mildly unsettling as Abel’s patient consigliere: a smiling, disarmingly gentle attorney whom we suspect has been “inherited” from Anna’s side of the family. Annie Funke makes a strong impression as the savvy granddaughter of a syndicate don, who entertains an offer from a near-desperate Abel.
Actually, many of the supporting players exude a sinister, even dangerous aura; Abel and Anna navigate visibly dangerous waters, at times — particularly on Abel’s part — with what seems blithe disregard for their safety.
When all is said and done, once Chandor builds to his eyebrow-raising conclusion, we’re left with questions: details apparently abandoned, much the way Abel and Anna’s three daughters — and the family dog — just sorta vanish midway through the film. Engaging as Chandor’s film is, as it’s being viewed, we depart mildly unsatisfied — perhaps even vexed — and left with a strong sense of Well, now what?
To a certain degree, the answer is obvious: Business as usual.
But Chandor could have taken a bit more care: However engaging the ride, the destination is of equal importance.