Top-notch thriller explores the underside of the American dream
Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac were overlooked during yesterday’s Oscar nominations, which is a bit disheartening, since they both give tremendous performances in writer/director J.C. Chandor’s newest film, A Most Violent Year (which opened in New York and L.A. in December, making it eligible for this year’s Oscars). Chandor, whose previous pictures include the pulse-quickening, terrific Margin Call and last year’s lost-at-sea thriller All is Lost, is a master at pulling his audience into a visceral time and place, and his skill remains exceptionally sharp, as evidenced here in his latest film.
Set in New York City in 1981, Chandor’s picture takes its title from the rather grim statistic that 1981 was New York’s most violent year on record, with over 2,100 murders. Chandor captures this gritty, pre-Giuliani era brilliantly; we see graffiti-covered subway cars and stations, and hear characters listen to radios that constantly are reporting shootings and murders. Chandor thus transports us to a city of ubiquitous fear, lawlessness, and unchecked corruption, and his story unfolds against this bleak backdrop.
Colombian immigrant Abel (Isaac) and his wife Anna (Chastain) own a successful heating oil business, the growth of which is threatened by both an investigation by the district attorney (David Oyelowo) into alleged fraudulent financial and business practices, and by rampant, violent hijackings of their fuel trucks. The film follows Abel’s desperate attempt to make a large cash payment by a strict deadline in order to purchase a bay front fuel terminal, when his loan and his very business are in imminent jeopardy of being destroyed. A story about upholding a financial contract may sound dry on paper, but in Chandor’s capable hands, this plot becomes an utterly gripping, race-against-the-clock thriller. First-rate performances by Isaac, Chastain (successfully cast against type as a working class Brooklyn native), and especially Albert Brooks, who we really don’t see enough of these days, as Abel’s lawyer and business confidante, also help make Chandor’s film well-worth seeing.
Ultimately, Chandor’s film is a deeply poetic exploration of the immigrant experience and the American dream. Are we a country that rewards success, Chandor asks, no matter how it’s earned? Chandor’s film echoes gangster movies and shows like Goodfellas, the Godfather series, and The Sopranos, but with a twist: Abel wants, always, to do the right thing. He doesn’t want to resort to violence or to cheat the system, even as he sees such practices swirling all around him. The union boss of Abel’s truck drivers wants to arm them with guns, for example, and Abel is vehemently against the idea. And Anna, the firm’s bookkeeper and the daughter of a small-time Brooklyn gangster, doesn’t give a second thought to fudging the books (or to killing a wounded deer when Abel hesitates, a somewhat heavy-handed metaphor for their entire dynamic).
As such, we start to wonder, along with Abel, if success in America can be achieved purely and morally. We tend to romanticize anti-heroes like Tony Soprano, Michael Corleone, or Wolf of Wall Street’s Jordan Belfort; even Jay Gatsby himself, that most quintessential of American success story icons, achieves his dream through admittedly shady business dealings. And, in a scene reminiscent of Glenngarry Glen Ross, another cutthroat American business classic, Abel instructs his heating oil sales staff in the manipulative art of the deal. You half expect Alec Baldwin to burst in yelling, “Always be closing!”
What, then, does our fascination with such do-what-ever-it-takes success say about us, Chandor asks? “I’ve spent my whole life trying not to become a gangster,” Abel says in frustration at one point; but if he doesn’t do everything in his power to get ahead, he knows someone else will, and he will no longer be on top. So does that make him weak? A failure? Or a hero?
What makes the film even more interesting and complex, though – – and makes it a must-see, if only for the thought-provoking post-viewing discussion it raises – – is that Abel’s motivations can actually be seen as practical, and not as inherently moral for morality’s sake. Abel knows that to keep his business afloat, he must stay on the right side of the law. But do the reasons for following a noble path actually matter, Chandor asks? “There’s always a path that’s most right,” Abel tells the D.A. at one point. “I hope so,” responds the D.A. Indeed, don’t we all? On second thought, don’t answer that.
A Most Violent Year opens today at Bay Area theaters.