The camelhair coat worn by Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) shines as brilliantly as anything seen in J.C. Chador's A Most Violent Year. The coat is merely the golden tan of most such garments. The New York of A Most Violent Year - interior and exterior - pales by comparison. It's 1981, and a most violent year indeed in and around the great metropolis. Almost none of filth of Abel's world - the fuel oil of his business, the frowning elements, dirt kicked up by a vehicle chase - seem to adhere to the impeccable coat. But as he tries to make a major expansion of his business while attempting to fend off the grip and violence of gangsterism one one side and encroaching law enforcment on the other, the poised, well dressed man is sorely pressed to keep himself clean in the most profound of respects.
A Most Violent Year is a sprawling American story told revealing small. The canvas is certainly large, even if spread with muted color. Much of the action of the film takes place in Brooklyn, the camera occasionally drawing back to include the East River and the towers of Manhattan beyond.
Stretching beyond a deliberate two hours, Mr. Chador's film has drawn comparisons to the dark-themed and New York placed work of Sidney Lumet. For his part, Chador has said it was his desire to create something “...like a good, old-fashioned gangster flick, with car chases and gunplay.” Perhaps the writer and director is a more serious man than he realizes. There are certainly echoes of The Godfather as well, both in theme and interior photography. But if the Godfather is grand opera, A Most Violent Year plays out like the movements of a chamber piece.
For all its resounding structure and theme big enough to wrap the five boroughs, A Most Violent Year, from scene to scene, seems to go forth with a cast of...several. Occasionally we see a pensive Abel Morales on his own. Most often, it's the ambitious businessman in conference or confrontation with an interlocutor or small group; an employee he's eloquently bucking up, a gathering of competitors he warns to cease the hijacking of his fleet. Occasionally, these conversations take place outdoors, but even then in oppressive industrial landscapes, beneath the weak, easily thwarted winter sun. Most often, the speaking, the imploring and pleading is done indoors, that tentative light further refracted through lowered blinds, drawn sheers.
All the characters in A Most Violent Year could well be vampires for the lack of threat from direct sunlight. More significantly, this is a film whose look matches its theme. The moribund industrial corridors, washed-out palette and hushed, conspiratorial interior settings are quite consistent with the world behind the world that Abel has to negotiate. The decay and the darkness match the ethical corrosion he's trying to fend off, the corruption that's set in.
Old Julliard buddies Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain play the would-be power couple Abel and Ann Morales. He's a first generation citizen from Columbia and she' a Brooklyn gangster's daughter; the husband a representation of immigrant ambition and idealism, while the wife is the embodiment of good old American reality. Two kids and several years into their marriage, the fire has clearly not gone out in the relationship. But that electricity increasingly jars them apart as Abel tries to negotiate all their troubles without recourse to violence and blatant criminality, while Ann reacts like a member of a chorus or riotous audience screaming for blood with growing insistency.
Moving purposefully in double breasted suits and that camelhair coat, his role in A Most Violent Year is another demonstration that Oscar Isaac is all too ready to be a star, to carry films. Just as A Most Violent Year manages to be distinct and of the present, despite the comparisons to, echoes of New York crime and gangster films of decades past, Mr. Isaacs work stands clear of the roles of Al Pacino and others to which it has been compared. Here as well as his leading role in Inside Llewyn Davis, Isaac has played challenged and exasperated men that would logically result in commonality of performance, at least in many of their particulars. And yet the two men would seem to have been brought to life by two quite different actors. As with Mr. Chador's still young career, it's exciting to contemplate what sort of work Mr. Issac might do in the future. Hopefully he won't be drawn too deeply in the slipstream of thunderous Hollywood make believe. He's already attached to X-Man: Apocalypse and Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (It's high time someone squelch the infernal force).
Jessica Chastain's Anna Morales is more or less an equal mix of steadfast partner, mafia princess and Lady Macbeth. Alas, Ms. Chastain operates with a far less enviable wardrobe than her on-screen partner in A Most Violent Year. Clearly, the malaise of New York City in 1981 extended beyond crime to matters of clothing, eyewear and coiffure. As with the character of the youngish mafioso of throwback style, Peter Forente (Allesandro Nivoa, fluid and versatile as ever), Anna Morales, as written by J.C. Chandor and realized by Chastain, seems ever so slightly derived from what has come before them. Her twirl of index finger to precede the line "This was very disrespectful" when speaking to the troublesome assistant district attorney (Oyelowo), is like a recessive mafia gene manifesting itself. It's hard to say if the trait springs from unique DNA created by Chandor and Chastain, or a characteristic spliced from elsewhere.
It's at Anna Morales' fiercest extremes when such questions seem most relevant, as when the couple hit a deer while driving on an expressway by night. When they realize what has happened, Anna reminds her husband that he has to put the deer out if its misery. While Abel hesitates over the head of the dying and audibly suffering animal, two shots explode from behind him. Anna has done the dirty work her husband was reluctant to finish The seeming disproportion of the act is matched by the fact that the discharge of the weapon sounds like the relative cannon of a .357 Magnum, while the revolver later fished distastefully out of his wife's purse by Abel looks like little more than a Derringer.
For the most part, J.C. Chandor's writing and direction eschews high drama for smaller, well-paced scenes, a kind of pointillism in favor of broad strokes. Such was the case in his feature debut, Margin Call (2011). The stakes and scope couldn't be larger in Margin Call, the collapse or near-collapse of world economies, yet the film often plays out on a personal level, small tragedies with almost unfathomably large repercussions. We're all aware of the larger disaster looming, but Mr. Chandor is a skilled and wise enough writer and director to allow an audience to provide the connection. It's a kind of horror film in which the monster never need enter the frame. He understand that the most unsettling drama breathes best when given space and is built upon the most personal and profoundly difficult decisions that people make, often the decision they don't make.
The hushed visual arena in which Mr. Chandor's chamber music plays and resounds is constructed by cinematographer Bradford Young. Mr. Young's preference for natural illumination is apparent in both the tentative light of winter days and those interior scenes in which that light is further diluted by curtains, blinds, closed doors. Inside and out, settings are frequently awash in the amber or yellowed glow of wistful winter afternoons. Only a few nighttime interiors, particularly that gathering of competitors attended by Abel and Anna, are lit dramatically, a strong contrast of shadow and focused light. Only these seem of a piece with those old fashioned gangster flicks of which the director is obviously fond, as the interior photography of Gordon Willis in The Godfather.
The score of Alex Ebert (of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros fame) is occasionally heard with prominence as the action progresses. This mainly when a lone trumpet is sounded at crucial points in the story, a departure from Ebert's otherwise subtle music for the film. The clarion horn is the flourish of a poor man's Nino Rota or Ennio Morricone, highlighting a drama which is apparent enough without the musical cue. It's the one, minor way in which A Most Violent Year overplays its hand.
The themes and symbols present in A Most Violent Year are large and many. As with the relatively brief, computer-generated glimpses (blurred, ghostly) of The World Trade Center we're afforded in the film, they loom in the distance, reminders of the folly and futility that ever takes place in the human foreground.
After a climactic shot of a pistol, a body lies in the snow before a storage tank, the head in a telling stain of its own blood. The bullet did its fatal work and then pierced the tank. Abel Morales knows there's nothing to be done with the body, but removes a handkerchief from that impeccable coat and plugs the hole, No standoff, no gunfight, the violence is self-inflicted. Then the small, almost dainty act to stop the bleeding of petroleum. There is blood, and then there is the stuff of American life.