If you buy your ticket for A Most Violent Year in anticipation of some kind of sub-Expendables style punch-up then you’re going to be sorely disappointed. It is perhaps the least aptly named film of the year so far. But that is not to say it’s not an enjoyable one. Rather obscurely, the title actually refers to 1981, the year in which the film is set, and the one in which there has to date been the most reported violent crime in New York City. In fact the film is a pensive study that documents the struggle of a first generation immigrant attempting to cling to the name he has made for himself in the shady and corrupt world of on-road oil delivery, and thus transcend the trappings of the class he desires so much to escape from.
We first meet Abel Morale (Oscar Isaac) as he dots the ‘i’s and crosses the ‘t’s on a deal at the dockside that could turn his successful but troubled delivery business into a much bigger affair. Deal done, Morale’s trip to the bank to secure the loan he needs for the purchase is interrupted by a call from his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), who is sat by the hospital bedside of Hispanic driver Julian (Elyes Gabel). Julian has been beaten up and left for dead in the latest of what turns out to be an on-running saga of truck-jackings by one or more of the rival delivery companies aiming to put Morale out of business. A trip to the district attorney attempting to end the jackings by diplomatic means brings to surface the fact that Morale is about to be served with several court orders, accusing him of corruption and mis-dealings. On learning of these accusations, the bank offering to lend him the money to buy up the docklands space retracts its offer and Morale is left with just one week to raise the huge amount he needs to complete the deal.
Writer/director J.C. Chandor is perhaps best known for 2013’s Robert Redford nautical vehicle All is Lost, but it is his 2011 feature debut, Margin Call, the ensemble drama about the financial crisis staring Kevin Spacey, that this film is the more similar to. Genre-wise, however, it can’t quite decide what it wants to be. There is too much pensive pontification and sole-searching between Mr and Mrs Morale for it to be a straightforward thriller, but the nail-biting sequence that finds a desperate Abel chasing one of his stolen trucks through the sewer network is far too active to make it the generic drama about class struggle that it might appear at first glance. Luckily for the relative newcomer Chandor (so, perhaps more by chance rather than by design), the film manages to stay just the right side of each cinematic trope to remain engaging throughout. Also, despite being set in the decade that style forgot, it also looks incredibly stylish, with the grainy, Wall Street-style cinematography firmly in the capable hands of Bradford Young (who also shot this year’s Martin Luther King biopic Selma.
With grey flicks at his temples, Isaac is acting – rather inversely to Hollywood – older than his actual thirty-four years, but he holds the film together with a central performance perhaps overlooked at the upcoming Academy Awards because of the film’s relative late release. He is in nearly every scene, and the main thrust of the story about a man attempting to rise to the top while refusing to act immorally and break the law where his competitors often will, is equally believable, frustrating and moving. All of his rivals own companies they inherited from their fathers and the old boy network Morale is part of, yet he is continually kept on the periphery. Morale arrives at a meeting he has called all of his fellow company heads to, intending to expose the culprit of the truck-jackings, only to find that they have started without him. But rather than show intimidation, he quietly takes his seat and demands that whoever is masterminding the industrial espionage simply stops, with an air of authority not seen since Don Corleone sat at the heads of the five families meeting in The Godfather. This is a film about class, or rather the American version of class, race, and the struggle that people like Morale have to endure to succeed in life, standing testament to that.
The only real disappointment comes from the underuse of the excellent Chastain as Anna Morale. After the critical acclaim of Zero Dark Thirty, one could expect more from such a talented actress, but she never quite manages to step away from the pseudo-gangster’s moll role the script offers her. Perhaps Chandor is making a similar comment about women to the one he does about race. America has had its first president from an ethnic minority; will it ever be able to have a woman?