A Most Violent Year is the best film you’ve ever seen about the heating oil industry in Brooklyn in 1981, and I don’t say that lightly. Writer/director JC Chandor debuted with Margin Call in 2011, followed by Robert-Redford-on-a-boat drama All is Lost in 2013, and now he presents this story of an immigrant businessman, Abel (Oscar Isaac), as he tries to expand his business and remain an honourable man in a dishonourable industry.
Javier Bardem had been attached to play Abel: at a Q&A with JC Chandor I attended, he revealed that Bardem’s departure had a significant effect on the film’s aesthetic, because Bardem has “a massive head”, particularly compared to Jessica Chastain, the female lead. Isaac is a different kind of actor, not just in terms of cranial magnitude. For a start he’s much less lived-in, and much closer to Chastain in age (in fact she’s older than him) which gives him a kind of vulnerability that serves the story well.
At the outset, Abel buys a new site for the business and has a month to secure the financing. This deadline gives the film its structure, so I suppose it could be called A Most Violent Month, but the Year refers to the fact that urban violent crime was peaking in 1981, and Abel’s oil trucks keep getting hijacked – possibly at random, possibly by his competitors – compelling him to consider arming his drivers. This would be the preferred option of Anna (Jessica Chastain), whose familial mob links are hinted at but never fully explored. Abel is determined to resist, fearing mutually assured destruction and an escalation in violence that would destroy the links with legitimate financiers he needs to close the property deal.
It’s a very enjoyable film. 1980s Brooklyn is lovingly rendered – cinematographer Bradford Young recently wrapped Oscar-tipped MLK biopic Selma – and his scenes have a gorgeous, photographic quality. Chastain is reliably superb, although it seems a shame that the film doesn’t explore Anna’s shady past. However this does mean that when glimpses of her steely, violent resolve come through, they are all the more tantalising. Albert Brooks does a fine job as Abel’s weary, morally ambivalent lawyer, and David Oyelowo as the district attorney digging into Abel’s affairs. Elyes Gabel is particularly good as Julian, one of Abel’s drivers who’s forced into dangerous situations he has neither the skills nor the resolve to cope with. He’s much more vulnerable here than in the role he’s perhaps best known for – fearless Dothraki Rokharo, loyal to his beloved Khaleesi until his head ends up in a saddlebag in Game of Thrones.
This is Isaac’s film though – when Bardem dropped out, Chastain was apparently relentless in her email campaigning for Chandor to bring in fellow Juilliard alum and close friend Isaac. It was a smart move, and it’s a much more nuanced role than where we’ll see Isaac next – piloting an X-wing in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. As Abel, he’s channelling three parts Michael Corleone to one part Silvio Dante (that part being the hair), but the interest lies in the fact that Abel is an unwilling gangster. Michael Corleone was always a killer: he volunteered in the marines long before he put himself forward to execute police captains, remember. Abel is a salesman, not a killer, and throughout the film he’s constantly selling the idea of himself as an honourable, peaceful man. It’s a sales pitch that’s partly for his competitors, the authorities and his wife, but partly for us too as the audience, and it’s to the film’s credit that by the end of the movie – in fact, particularly following the last few scenes – I’m still not sure if I’m buying what Abel is selling. It makes for a beguiling 125 minutes that’s very engaging to watch.