No City For Oil Men
A Most Violent Year begins with Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues.” The song, like the film it introduces, is chilling and soulful. Gaye recorded it in 1971 and the rhythmic piano chords flavor its depiction of urban-ghetto hardship with a powerful melancholy. “Crime is increasing/Trigger happy policing/Panic is spreading.” Gaye hums them with a sad foresight. Ten years later—40 years, really— his lyrics linger on into a cold, brutal New York City, brittle with crime and corruption.
It is, by all accounts, a methodical initiation to a film that looks and feels plucked from the era it evokes. The song provides a momentary jogging soundtrack for Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), an immigrant and heating oil business owner with a name both biblical and ethical. It is 1981, and the New York City he inhabits is a decaying ecosystem of desperation and double-dealing. But the film’s title isn’t so much visceral than it is spiritual, a foundation of fear nestled into the city’s graffitied corners and broken down industry. It preys upon the expectation of brutality and the uncertainty of when it will come.
This is writer and director J.C. Chandor’s third vivid, climactic, altogether captivating film, and along with budding star cinematographer Bradford Young, he creates a potent, gritty atmosphere to accompany this fable of greed and prosperity. A golden tint coats the foggy winter air. The shadows are long and dark. The solemnity is matched by an Alex Ebert score that subtly follows Gaye’s lead, enveloping scenes with dissonant piano strikes. Abel himself rarely raises his voice, as though one tick of emotion will throw his whole empire into flames. His operation is meticulous but highly precarious.
That’s partly due to the nature of the times and the ventures he’s pursuing, rising in the ranks of a largely territorial industry. His major goal, and the film’s source of conflict, rests on the purchase of a highly coveted refinery– prime real estate in Queens along the East River—being sold by a group of rabbis. The deal is expectedly lucrative and means Abel’s family can begin moving into a luxurious suburban house. It also promises confrontation. The group of other local oil business owners, who resemble Mafia members, is wary about this potential handshake. When Abel’s oil trucks start becoming hijacked, distrust festers within the circle, heightening as each crime goes unpunished and each stolen dollar goes unpaid.
Under this specific pressure, Abel’s drivers, particularly one (Elyes Gabel), fear for their safety at the wheel. As their confidence collapses, other ventures begin to tear away. Salesmen, given scrupulous direction and commands, occasionally get beaten on assignment. Abel’s loans start falling through when a trusted bank finds out the city attorney (David Oyelowo) is suing him for tax evasion and other off-the-book dealings. The bad news piles up. Abel’s attorney (a reliable Albert Brooks) helps soften the blows and weighs the options. One person tells him it’s a badge of honor to receive a lawsuit.
Chandor’s films vary wildly in mood and setting but remain tethered to the demands of capitalism and his characters’ subsequent battles to stay afloat, sometimes quite literally. Margin Call explored the chatty, power hungry financial world on the brink of collapse in 2008. All Is Lost examined a man stranded at sea without offering any dialogue to guide his shipwrecked journey. A Most Violent Year solidifies his remarkable early direction and continues this thematic progression, balancing the cerebral with quiet intensity. At one point, a small noise at home awakens Abel, his wife, Anna, and two daughters. He grabs his baseball bat, tiptoeing through the halls, aware that his enterprise is not even safe in his newly furnished mansion. A burglar scampers away by the front door, a creeping punctuation that Chandor returns to frequently as if to channel the family’s paranoia.
Something similar happens again when Abel and Anna (a superb Jessica Chastain) hit a deer on the road. What follows is a telling scene, comical and unnerving. It solidifies Anna, whose father handed down the business, as the family’s power source, exhibited in her reservoir of versatility. Chastain has freedom here. She dolls up in front of lawyers and then takes off the gloves with her husband, taking on the role of family defender. Part of this is self-interest and naiveté. From the start her blonde hair is pinned back neatly, playing secretary for Abel’s business that is dominated by men. As things get desperate so do her measures for fighting her name’s failure. She refuses to play housewife and begins unraveling, less dramatically than Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle but with the same sense of authority and oversight.
It contradicts Abel. Isaac plays him with graceful stoicism, bottling anger until a necessary snap. He’s turned into an immensely gentle screen presence, able to mask ire with serenity and then switch them effortlessly. In Abel’s mind, guns do not belong with his truck drivers, even if they find themselves in dangerous situations. He does not believe in that kind of inevitably hairy confrontation. “I’ve spent my whole life trying not to become a gangster,” he tells Anna, nudging her to dampen any offensive tactics. Even though, in the New York City that Chandor illustrates, everybody has already turned into one. Even though Abel knows for years he has been running a dangerously unprincipled business.
This balance—between controlled conning and ethical idealism– sets up two beautifully rendered scenes: a car chase and a negotiation that scrape the film’s opposite poles in impressive order. Abel sits at the round table, a meeting with the heads of families, and cuts through the noise. “Stop,” he says quietly, until they do. This is Isaac channeling Michael Corleone. This is when all of that fear and bloodshed stop being abstract concepts and come into ugly focus.
This is a great film. It grabs you with palpable urgency, slowly simmering to a boil. It’s also a tribute to acting. Brooks has become such a convincing snake since Drive while Pete Gerety, Glen Fleshler and Jerry Adler offer up poignant performances in their limited roles. Oyelowo also stays with you as a lawyer determined to fight corruption, but knowing which fights to pick. He questions Abel at the end and receives a vague, perpetually unclear, answer. “Always take the path that’s most right,” he says. You expect a suffix for that word. It’s the most telling omission to a film brimming with exquisite detail.