The dark side of a migrant's American Dream

A Most Violent Year (MA). Director: J. C. Chandor. Starring: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivol. 124 minutes

In 2012 debutante filmmaker J. C. Chandor emerged with a remarkably absorbing drama, set at a fictional Wall Street investment bank (loosely based on Lehman Brothers) on the eve of the Global Financial Crisis. More of a philosophical horror story than a cautionary tale, Margin Call found the unwitting architects of the crisis contemplating the impending catastrophe, and dissecting the economics of greed and self-interest that had brought them inevitably to the brink.

Where Margin Call was a thriller whose suspense emanated from its dismantling of economic wisdom, Chandor's 2014 follow-up, All Is Lost, was pure white-knuckle action. Robert Redford starred as a solo yachtsman stranded on the Indian Ocean after his yacht is damaged in a collision with a stray shipping container (literally, the detritus of consumer culure). With his navigation equipment and radio disabled and his yacht succumbing to the depths, he must rely on his instincts and resourcefulness to survive.

Chandor's latest, A Most Violent Year, bears most obvious comparison to Margin Call, and can sensibly be approached as a companion piece to that film. Each offers a grim consideration of a different face of the American Dream: in Margin Call, of the Wall Street brats who have made their fortunes buying and selling the idea of money; in A Most Violent Year, of a migrant and self-made man — the hard-working head (played by Isaac) of a heating oil company in 1981 New York.

Yet Isaac's Abel Morales is also in many ways a version of Redford's luckless but determined hero, who maintains both dignity and humanity as circumstances and his environment seem to conspire against him. As the film opens he, with his wife, Anna (Chastain), is in the process of purchasing a riverside facility that he believes will give his business a considerable advantage over its competitors. Like a solo yacht trip, it's a risky venture that promises considerable returns.

Recently, however, their business has suffered a series of violent robberies. As a result Abel is under pressure from a surly union head to illegally arm his truck drivers, something that the morally upright businessman refuses to do. At the same time, they are under scrutiny from ambitious Assistant District Attorney Lawrence (Oyelowo), who is trying to clean up an industry notorious for its corruption and connections to organised crime. Abel claims to be guilty of neither.

These events imperil Abel's previously sound relationship with his bank, a fact that in turn threatens to scupper the property deal into which he has already heavily invested. It also brings the danger too close to home, with the lives of Anna and their daughters also increasingly put at risk. Abel must garner all his diplomatic resources if he is to end the violence, while also ensuring that he is allowed to expand his business and thus build his personal wealth, as the dictates of capitalism entitle him to do.

In all of this there is an implied commentary on the migrant experience of the American Dream. Abel's life is pointedly contrasted with Peter's (Nivola), a young truck driver who has been the victim of several violent assaults on the job. Peter idolises Abel, for whom the Dream has apparently come true — if Abel can make it, so too can Peter. The problem is that Abel's Dream stands on the backs of ordinary workers like Peter. Peter is a tragic antihero coming to learn that for many, the Dream will remain just that.

In both Margin Call and All Is Lost, Chandor proved to be an elegant and assured filmmaker, who probes his characters' humanity while building considerable suspense around their plight. A Most Violent Year is, similarly, superbly put together, with several excellent action sequences (including a near-blind car chase through a train tunnel) and occasional bursts of brutal, contextual violence indicating just how high the stakes are for all involved. It's a very fine film.


Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: A Most Violent Year, J. C. Chandor, Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Robert Redford, David Oyelowo

 

 

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