In J.C. Chandor’s taut and sleek thriller, A Most Violent Year, one character lectures another that “these are dangerous times and we have to adapt.” The characters are not gangsters or corrupt politicians. They are businessmen dealing in a New York City oil-heating conglomerate. But oil-heating business or not, the men in A Most Violent Year stabbing each other in the back are a microcosm of a festering corruption and venality that has infused an entire society.
This society is New York City in 1981 but it could just as well be New York City in 2014. Cynicism runs rampant, there is blood on everyone’s hands and “a mad stalker is at large on the streets of Manhattan.” 1981 is cited as the worse year of recorded rapes and murders in New York City history. 2014 might not share that record, but it certainly seems that way.
Into this moldering stew enters Abel Morales (Oscar Issac), a man who has convinced himself that he is clean of corruption, seeking to make an honest business deal and gain a foothold into the old local heating market. Abel is stiff and self-righteously upstanding and he wraps his tan cashmere coat around him like a shield against the world. But the corruption is all around him. Not only in the oil heating cartel of families Abel has to deal with but in his wife, Ann (Jessica Chastain), the daughter of a mob boss who is cooking his books behind his back, his lawyer-advisor Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks, in a performance free of irony, with a sad undertone of having seen it all), who is maneuvering to Abel’s advantage with pseudo-legal manipulations, and even the assistant D.A. (David Oyelowo), who, when Abel asks to enlist his help is informed that the city is in the process of charging Abel’s company with fraud and extortion. When Abel cuts a deal with a group of Hasidic Jews, investing funds for an oil holding station, with the balance to be paid in a month, the screws start turning, and Abel has to weigh his integrity against capitalist expediency in order to close to deal or face being ruined.
Chandor’s previous films Margin Call and All Is Lost dealt with a lone man against elemental forces – an epochal financial maelstrom and a natural one. Here the lone man of truth must battle against a systemic capitalist quagmire of corruption, and Chandor, abetted by the atmospheric cinematography of Bradford Young, depicts a world of widescreen compositions, with the bric-a-bric of the compositions (production designed by John P. Goldsmith), surrounding Abel, choking him or pushing him out. A Most Violent Year is like a cinematic dog collar, Chandor tightening the links as the audience gasps for air along with Abel.
A Most Violent Year is also a tribute to the films of Sidney Lumet. If Lumet were still alive, this is a film he might have directed. Echoes of Prince of the City and Night Falls On Manhattan abound. And you can’t have a film about capitalist corruption without a touch of David Mamet and a sequence in which Abel instructs his salesman to look their customers in the eye and ask for tea could have been an outtake from Glengarry Glen Ross.
Another Lumet tribute is delivered by Oscar Isaac, who centers his role on Al Pacino’s Frank Serpico in Lumet’s Serpico. Issac’s hard yet vulnerable gaze is directly from the Pacino playbook and Isaac utilizes it to great effect. Chastain’s Anna is a fine compliment to Isaac’s smoldering intensity, a mob daughter struggling to adjust to righteousness.
The brilliance of Chandor’s conception of linking Lumet to 2014 is that the style never changes because the corruption never changes. Capitalism can twist and morph but the underlying contagion remains. Chandor offers no answers, but in A Most Violent Year he lays bare the unresolvable societal undercurrents like a corpse on an autopsy table.