Sadly some excellent films disappear quickly from UK cinema screens during the months of January and February. It’s an unfortunate side effect of the recently-adopted tradition of rushing through the award season heavy hitters in the new year, an industry-wide decision that has seen Birdman, American Sniper, Wild, The Theory Of Everything, Foxcatcher, Whiplash and more released within a period of 21 days here, with the likes of Selma and Inherent Vice still to come. (Funnily enough all of these serious nomination-earning dramas have been trounced at the box office by the critically-panned Taken 3, which is a) quite a sobering thought, and b) not a particularly pleasant one to dwell on.)
I’ve been going to the cinema two or three times a week all month and I’ve still struggled to keep up with the post-Christmas glut, let alone independent releases I’d like to see (although it’s not as if anyone’s holding a gun to my head and I probably ought to be celebrating the quality on offer rather than moaning about it). But there’s no two ways about it: each year good films are slipping through the cracks as a result of this intense scheduling.
An interesting example of a film suffering during this period is A Most Violent Year. J.C. Chandor’s anti-gangster crime movie has earned plenty of praise in the media, but it failed to receive any Oscar nominations and its low profile has resulted in takings of less than $2 million to date, roughly 10% of its budget. Admittedly the film hasn’t been released in some countries yet, and presumably many UK and US cinemas haven’t actually shown it, but it looks set to be a flop in financial terms, which is a shame. At the time of writing The Guardian’s website includes a disappointing single comment under one of its reviews, and that comment actually relates to an entirely different film, linked by cinematographer. To labour the point: I went to see A Most Violent Year in my local multiplex on a Monday night, only three nights after it was released, and I was the only person in the audience; and yet this 10-screen cinema serves a large town and several smaller ones, too. It seems as though the film hasn’t registered with the public for one reason or another, but the most likely explanation is that December is an expensive month for most people and regular cinemagoers are just picking and choosing. And also, as much as it pains me to say it, the majority of people are picking and choosing Taken 3.
In a way I can understand why there is a general lack of enthusiasm: this is a slow-burning, downbeat drama set in the middle of an icy winter, and its mood is both aided and summed up perfectly by an elegiac organ score that brings to mind funeral services, first and foremost. Chandor’s story – set in 1981 – tentatively sidles up to the oft-explored world of New York criminality but keeps a wary distance and commendably refuses to adopt most of the usual cinematic gangster clichés; the Mafia, for example, are alluded to but never seen. The focus is instead on an honest man struggling to remain decent under considerable pressure when his heating oil transportation business and family are targeted by unscrupulous crooks. Because the man in question – Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) – is a camel coat-wearing Colombian immigrant, we are conditioned, to an extent, to expect the character to crack and become a variant on Tony Montana or another of the numerous immigrant gangsters found in The Godfather, Once Upon A Time In America, Gangs Of New York, The Untouchables, GoodFellas et al. It is somewhat refreshing that Chandor takes an abrupt left turn and presents us with something entirely different. This feels like a gangster film throughout, partly because we see plenty of familiar gangster film imagery, such as cars rolling into empty car parks for business meetings or nervous characters talking outdoors to avoid being caught by wiretaps, but there aren’t actually any gangsters in it.
The film’s title refers to the fact that crime statistics for the city peaked in 1981, and it hovers with quiet menace over the entire movie, with unrelated news reports offering regular reminders as they spill from Abel’s car radio. Chandor creates a strong sense that crime was / is somehow unavoidable for anyone choosing to live and / or work within the five boroughs at this time, as if it’s as much a part of daily life as breathing or eating. But the film isn’t overly concerned with the city as its subject: the action is largely confined to Brooklyn’s lesser-known industrial zones and freeways, even though the familiar Manhattan skyline looms large in the distance (with the World Trade Center represented by a blurry, out-of-focus smudge that makes a subtle, ghostly impression during one or two scenes).
Morales – an entirely relevant character name if ever there was one – runs his company with the input of accountant wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), who happens to be the daughter of a mob boss, and weary lawyer Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks). Together they are attempting to buy a large patch of land on the Brooklyn waterfront that will allow the business to expand rapidly, but their drivers are regularly targeted by hijackers and the company’s salesmen are intimidated when encroaching on territory ‘held’ by rival firms. One of these opposing companies, which is buying the stolen oil cheaply before selling it on, even dispatches a gunman to Abel and Anna’s new house at night.
Despite the robberies and the intimidation tactics, and against the wishes of Anna, Abel refuses to fight back. Instead he appeals to David Oyelowo’s DA for help, but it soon transpires that the DA has his own political agenda, which involves investigating all companies involved in the heating oil business for financial irregularity. It transpires that Abel and Anna’s company was previously under mob rule, and therefore the books were cooked for a number of years, which doesn’t really help their current predicament. If this wasn’t enough Abel must ensure that he has the money to follow-through with his waterfront purchase, and must sooth the mounting concerns of the Teamsters, who want their drivers to carry guns for protection; this leads directly to the film’s less-interesting sub-plot, in which a truck driver named Julian (Elyes Gabel) becomes embroiled in the violence.
Though light on action the film offers a few bursts of energy, but really the tension is built slowly and methodically by the mounting pressure on Abel, who seemingly cannot catch a break and cannot rely on anyone for help (or even honesty). He must keep it together while being emasculated at home by Anna, who gravely warns that she will take matters into her own hands if her husband refuses to, while the heads of other companies circle like vultures, keen to take advantage of his situation.
Isaac is very good, veering from exasperation to calm, assured decisiveness. Chastain is even better as Anna, revealing the ‘benefits’ of her mob-related upbringing by displaying a cool nonchalance in the face of the authorities and her husband’s protests. She is a powerful character who keeps her power hidden for the most part. They share some excellent scenes and there’s an easy, believable rapport between the two leads; apparently Isaac and Chastain have known each other for a number of years, and though it’s impossible to tell that solely from their performances, it must have helped them when establishing the dynamic of this strained-but-functioning marriage. There’s good support from Oyelowo and Brooks, too, though their characters are firmly secondary concerns.
I have not seen either of Chandor’s first two films but, based on this, I am keen to check out All Is Lost and Margin Call at some point soon. A Most Violent Year is a stately, measured work, and although it requires a degree of patience at times it is an extremely rewarding crime drama. Perhaps, if anything, it lacks that something special: there’s nothing in this film that would stand up to comparison with the wit and zip of Scorsese’s finest moments, the weight of Coppola’s most gripping scenes or the set pieces of De Palma’s best work, but those are rare filmmakers who have made rare works of excellence within this field and within this genre, broadly speaking. Despite commendably approaching the crime film in a way that feels fresh today this sits just below the peaks reached by those directors, but on the plus side that puts it miles above the likes of Taken 3, and it certainly doesn’t deserve to be ignored.
Directed by: J.C. Chandor
Written by: J.C. Chandor
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Albert Brooks
Running Time: 125 minutes