In A Most Violent Year, Oscar Isaac plays Abel Morales, an immigrant who’s made good in the heating fuels industry and wants to purchase riverside land to consolidate operations. Partnered with his wife Anna (Chastain), he’s about to seal the deal when plans are spooked by a series of attacks on company lorries: the union leadership unilaterally arms the drivers, a shoot-out takes place and the DA starts tax evasion proceedings. The bank reconsiders funding and Abel must make things work. Filmed largely on location in New York, the film opens with scenes of yellow-hued docklands through which Morales moves with suitcases full of money and a camel-hair coat to negotiate with a bevy of Orthodox Jews. DP Bradford Young creates a seedy atmosphere of retro-oiled slickness, boosted by the body armour of shoulder pads and three-piece suits, with landscape shots of windswept streets and derelict industrial wastelands completing a vacuum confidently occupied by Abel’s belief in his own decency. His clear-eyed wife, the daughter of a gangster, supports these illusions only to a degree. When things go wrong, a series of excellently scripted dialogues between the couple show corruption slipping slyly into the partnership – and into Abel’s business strategies. Highlighting this process with a French Connection-style chase through the port area, Chandor allows his protagonist to drift by degrees into an acceptance of expedient violence, although Abel still insists that his actions conform to the “more right” way. Such nuanced renditions of moral relativity rarely make it to screen.
A Most Violent Year | Directed by J.C. Chandor (USA 2014) with Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain. Starts March 19
Originally published in issue #136, March 2015