2 February 2015

JC Chandor’s ‘A Most Violent Year’

A Most Violent Year is set in 1981 in New York where Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is an emerging presence in the cutthroat business of distributing heating oil. Just as he is about to close on a real estate deal for a riverside tank facility which would turn him into a major player, his rivals close in. His employees are intimidated, his family are threatened and an ambitious young assistant District Attorney (David Oyelowo) puts him under investigation. Abel’s wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), keeps the business’s books in the less than rigorous fashion of the time and sector and, coming from a mafia family, has her own views on how to handle the situation. Abel sets out to do better than that, believing that a man “must take the path that is most right” and being totally confident in his ability to do so and in his own powers of leadership. The film is the story of how, rather against the odds, he succeeds and is revealed to be cut out to be much more than a dealer in kerosene. I would be surprised if Chandor doesn’t return before long to the story of Abel Morales .

Abel’s fastidiousness and ambition gives Isaac a chance to reveal his considerable dramatic range, quite a different characterisation from those of Rydal in The Two Faces of January and (Inside) Llewyn Davis. Chastain, notable in Zero Dark Thirty, has a couple of good scenes but the film is primarily about Anna’s husband.

Chandor’s first feature, Margin Call, which he also wrote and directed, was primarily about investment banking at the time of the crash, Wall Street and New York providing the background. This film, his third, is down on the streets and audiences outside the US may not always appreciate the nuances of a scenario firmly embedded in a particular American city (even if they realise that in the US a DA has to run for office). By far the most helpful and informative review of A Most Violent Year which I have read was, perhaps not surprisingly, that in the New Yorker by their David Denby who has been a film reviewer in New York since the 1970s.

Chandor has now started on Deepwater Horizon, a story about the offshore drilling rig disaster in 2010 which had such dire consequences for the UK oil major, BP. It will be interesting to see what line he takes and consequently what British critics decide to make of it.

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