“The jungle is dark and full of diamonds.”
– Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller
The post-WW2 dystopian version of the American dream that Miller wrote about relates to J.C Chandor’s A Most Violent Year, which is now out on DVD and Blu-Ray. The main character, Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), begins with semblance of success as a Colombian immigrant living in Westchester, New York in 1981. A city filled with opportunity, but also, statistically, it’s the most dangerous time to make a living in New York.
Amidst the harsh winds and swirling snowy flakes of winter, Abel has taken over the heating oil company that he started out working for, recognising the potential to make lots of money. He is a steely, focussed businessman, with a stare unforgiving of even Medusa and a voice as uncompromising as a firebrand politician. Yet for all the machinations and notions of a semi-professional, self appointed gangster, Abel undoubtedly harbours moral conflicts. These conflicts allow his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain) to captivate, motivate and demoralise Abel’s ambitions all in one giant swoop. She is the one who draws the pistol to shoot the deer caught in the headlights of their vehicle when he cannot, and in eerily Shakespearian fashion, she manages to perform the Lady Macbeth role better than many filmic performances of the actual Lady Macbeth. Anna guilt-trips, coerces and exploits her husband all under the guise of being the mob daughter.
Many people have noticed comparison between The Godfather and A Most Violent Year. Chandor, in his previous film Margin Call (2011) postures to talk about the hierarchical nonsensicalities of the financial world whilst maintaining his ambition of telling a story through silent stares and meaningful body positions. You recognise these aspects in A Most Violent Year as Abel Morales sits at a large table, looking pertinently at his rival heating bosses; any one of these men could be stealing and doing him out of business. Much like Brando and De Niro when they scarily peer into their rivals’ souls with unwavering consistency, Abel manages to convey the sense of life’s competitiveness. However, unlike those characters he is driven by success and the goading of his significant other, whereas for Brando and De Niro’s character it is all about survival of the fittest.
Chandor plays on the idea that immigrants are naturally mistrusting, rightly so, of everyone. Whatever generation you are, the mentality of their forefathers to maintain a sense of distance is palpable given the mistreatment laid at their feet for decades. As such, Abel trusts very few; his wife Anna and his grounded, cautious lawyer, Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks), are the only two with which he imparts his internal dialogue. Perhaps intentionally, Abel lies between the two cornerstones of his existence; where Andrew is sensible, risk averse and very sure-minded with regards to the direction that Abel is taking, Anna adores the spotlight of danger, wrapping herself around Abel like a metaphysical red lipstick adorned snake, slyly indulging his fancies until she can force him into terrifying situations.
George Carlin once claimed that the American dream is literal in the sense that you have to be asleep to believe it. In a sense this is how A Most Violent Year works. It disseminates the notion of a pure American dream – for there is none – and forces it down the throat of Abel via mercurial liquid spouted from the almost omnipotent presence of Anna. She lulls him into a dreamlike, ethereal state by shaming, forcing and pleading with him to up the ante – all with the presence of mind to please him through sultry, succubus-like stares and occasionally touching his manhood with long, delicate and snow white fingers – upon which lie long manicured fingernails that belie the intentions of the soft, supple exterior.
Yet despite Anna’s clarion call for romanticised danger, Abel himself remains morally grounded, compared to his peers at any rate, because he resolves to maintain something of a sliver of moral code amidst the quite abhorrent criminality of New York in 1981. This was a time where poor people robbed poor people, rich people screwed over rich people and, as ever, the richest, in their ivory towers, ignored everyone else.
Whilst A Most Violent Year does make claims to observational drama in a similar vein to The Godfather, it perhaps focusses too keenly on the almost set-in-stone nature of the future financial wars of Wall Street as opposed to the here and now of 1981. That’s not to take anything away from Chandor, as A Most Violent Year works wonderfully in most aspects, but there is a sense – and a somewhat unsubtle one – that the film positions itself to look more at the consequences of the times rather than the present state of Abel.
Much like the weather that exists within the film, all encompassing and ever spitting out piercing hailstones, Abel Morales wants to find success through any means, or at least he thinks he does. But, much like the natural world, occasionally there are glimpses of gentle blue between the clouds. It’s at those moments people like Abel are allowed to step back. He is not a pleasant man, but he is not inherently evil. To live in Satan’s pit and come out as morally conflicted is remarkable given the insatiable appetite that occurs when it is unrelentingly dog eat dog out there.
A Most Violent Year is out now on DVD and Blu-Ray.