VOD film review: A Most Violent Year
Oscar Isaac's hair8
Clarisse Loughrey | On 21, May 2015
Director: J.C. Chandor
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo
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What is there of honour when we’re left dead in the dirt? A cruel reminder of the foolish decisions which brought us to our own destruction? Or that last bastion of hope worth the very ultimate of sacrifices? Even in the most subconscious of ways, we must all inevitably come to define the limits of our own morality. To ask ourselves: what does it take to survive?
Director J.C. Chandor’s filmography may be brief, A Most Violent Year being only his third feature, yet it’s already clear his vision of the world is one driven by that instinct to survive. Those who populate his work are all ordinary, decent people at heart; yet when placed in circumstances so beyond their own control, they’re forced to accept the very limitations of their own humanity, whether that be under the will of an ever-fluctuating economic market (Margin Call) or the great, untameable force of nature (All is Lost).
Here, Chandor’s continuing exploration of those limits takes on an almost Shakespearean magnitude. Through the radio static, we hear of the chaos that signalled New York City’s most violent year on record, 1981. With the police now effectively impotent to protect vast swathes of its population, the individual begins to drift towards isolation. Dog-eat-dog becomes the only rule worth living by. In this world, a businessman like Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) finds himself burdened with something akin to the feudal system: if his workers pay their dues through admiration and hard work, then he, in return, shall vow to protect them when no one else will.
Abel walks among his kingdom of tankers and trucks with all the burdened nobility of those kings of old. He’s an immaculately-cut presence, a slicked pompadour rising like a blue whale cresting the waters and a Brooks Brothers camel coat, its popped collar resting like the edge of an ermine cloak. Though Bradford Young’s dark, rich cinematography may be intended to evoke the smog-filled sky of an ‘80s metropolis, when the lens is focused on Abel, it evokes something of the oiled hues of the Flemish portraits seen hanging in the greatest courts of Europe.
All the polished veneer of a man whose purest sense of pride lies in his own righteousness. This is how he defines himself; he speaks of his own morality with the almost irritating frequency of the way people who went to Oxford somehow always let you know they went to Oxford. The city may be at war, but Abel desires only to cling to his idea of utopian fairness; even at the point when his own workers, his own family, come under the threat of attack.
But he is not a lone force: at the very core of Chandor’s thoughtful piece is the perpetually attracting, yet repelling, forces of two people bound together by marriage, yet at odds with their own instincts for survival. Abel’s wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), is not the corrupting force that Shakespeare’s power-plays might relish in, but a woman who, while so admiring of her husband’s honour, also sees past his gallant veneer and understands its fatal naivety.
That perpetual push-and-pull, executed with mastery by both Isaac and Chastain, tautens the atmosphere to an electrifying extreme. Throw a few chase sequences in there as well, and you start to get a real understanding of Chandor’s achievement with A Most Violent Year: never has the crisis of our own morality been such a thrilling ride.
A Most Violent Year is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription. It is also available now on BFI Player, as part of a £4.99 monthly subscription.