“You’ll never do anything harder than staring someone in the eye and telling them the truth”
I remember being surprised when Margin Call—the little movie that could—came out. Writer/director J.C. Chandor earned an Oscar nomination for his screenplay before heading to virtual silence with his harrowing sophomore effort, the Robert Redford-starring All is Lost, a film deemed one of the biggest Academy Awards snubs of 2013. Now that’s a lot of pressure for a young guy who just burst onto the scene and yet he decided to push the envelope further with a period piece populated by exquisitely drawn characters trapped in the volatile world of oil amidst a crime wave so big that their turf war was merely small potatoes in comparison. A Most Violent Year in some ways epitomizes its lead Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), both underestimated idealists whose ferocity is so potent that they never have to bite.
It’s an expertly crafted script of such meticulous orchestration that events unfolding like they should somehow deliver the type of unexpected relish generally reserved for twists. When the time finally came to discover who it was that’s been terrorizing Morales’ family, company, and employees, I started rifling off characters in my head any novice trying to wow his audience would have forced into the villain position for shock value because Hollywood has conditioned me. It’s the beauty of simplicity and Chandor’s dedication to the story’s authenticity over splashy outcomes more gimmick than honest that ultimately consume whole those willing to buy into the world created onscreen. We assume it’s about gangsters and we’re correct. But when the guy who should be a kingpin is introduced as a compassionate and empathetic employer—well that’s a wrinkle you cannot ignore.
How could the man at the center of such violent affairs and corruption charges leveled by the District Attorney (David Oyelowo) be the one soul in Brooklyn yearning to do the right thing often to his own detriment? How can you not be intrigued to see exactly who he is and whether or not the obstacles erected in his path at an exponential pace will finally break him into becoming that which he strove to never become? All Abel wants is to continue expanding his oil firm that has blossomed in five short years thanks to business acumen that understands the power of appearances. Customers don’t want to be bullied or left without an alternative; they want to feel like they’re dealing with friends. Abel provides this with approachable drivers and salesman trained to project a modest, confident air of excellence.
His competitors obviously must find a way to wrestle ahead. They know Morales is brokering a deal to purchase a huge waterfront property guaranteed to push him even farther beyond them. They also know he has only thirty days to close before losing a substantial deposit that would ruin him. So when a few of his drivers get roughed up and a goon with a gun shows up outside his house, he has to assume one of the other industry magnates is behind it whether they possess respect for his integrity or not. Business is business. Despite his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) chomping at the bit to call her mobster father and rein fire, however, Abel relents. He will handle it his way and the deal will be done. But a lot can happen in thirty days.
A taut ride from start to finish, I was on the edge of my seat waiting, hoping for the moment Morales would snap. When that began to seem unlikely I turned attention to Anna to circumvent her husband and greenlight a war way beyond what was already being waged. Every time it appeared a problem was solved, another presented itself with larger stakes. Just when Abel thinks he’s on his way to mitigating the myriad issues thrown in his lap at the worst possible time, bad luck rears its head until frustration bubbles into checked aggression. The law’s breathing down his neck, the men trusting him to have their backs are scared into bringing illegal firearms into their trucks for protection, and his enemies start to become the only people he can turn to for help.
There’s a wonderful air of old school versus new with peers such as Peter Forente (Alessandro Nivola) admitting he’s tried doing things differently from his incarcerated father despite proving just as vicious. Anna’s threat of wise-guy interference isn’t the only taste close to Abel’s home either as his consigliere (Albert Brooks‘ Walsh) pushes hard for a trajectory towards the way he’d do it if in the driver’s seat. What this means is that a lot of seemingly pleasant, loving people surrounding Abel have no qualms with baring their sharpened teeth. Chastain is the scariest of all as she so effortlessly morphs from smiling mother to feral beast cackling at Abel’s naiveté and in all seriousness explaining how he won’t like what happens if she’s forced to take control. I can’t imagine how tempting it’d be to let her.
Chandor nails the 1981 aesthetic with gorgeous production design; usual one-dimensional adversaries prone to smashing kneecaps in lesser fare composed of great nuance; and as previously stated an astounding economy in all facets. I’m talking the camerawork of a memorable foot chase curving between stopped cars on a bridge, a car pursuit through fog and train tunnels over rocky terrain more thrilling than anything high-speeds could deliver, and Isaac’s portrayal of a man striving to be pure within a profession that supplies dirty water as though from a spring. He tries so hard to do the right thing and appeal to the honor of thieves, prideful and self-righteous enough to believe everything he’s doing is right no matter the lives ruined. To him it’s worth it if he remains standing. Perhaps it’s shame on me, but I concur.
courtesy of A24