The Moral Compass – ★★★★
Director J.C. Chandor is following up his two previous much-heralded films Margin Call and All is Lost in search of a rare thing – a debut writer/director “three in a row”. For A Most Violent Year, he wears his influences on his sleeve. Think Heat/Insider-era Michael Mann, The Godfather Part II, Serpico, The French Connection and you’re in the right territory.
1981 is considered New York’s most dangerous year, with documented crime figures higher than they’d ever been before, or since. The film stars Oscar Isaac as Abel Morales, a New York-based heating oil business man who wants to strike a deal with a group of Hasidic Jews for an oil holding facility by the river which will see him become the real top-dog in New York’s increasingly competitive and dirty heating oil business. Like Michael Corleone before him, this immigrant kid with a perfect head of hair craves power, but is unsure about what he might have to do to obtain it.
By Abel’s side is the wonderful Jessica Chastain as Anna, his wife who comes from a very dubious mob background; her father fronted the cash to start the business in the first place. It’s Anna with her fur coats and secret penchant for tiny fire-arms who decides that they’re at war with their industry competitors. Their lawyer (Albert Brooks playing it straight again), the D.A. (David Oyelowo) and a scared and dangerous driver (Elyes Gabel) are all in play to pull at Abel Morales’ “moral” compass…
With a deadline in place to get financing to buy the holding facility, Chandor’s script utilises the narrative device of a countdown to keep things on track, but even with it, this is a real slow-burner as things happen quite slowly across the 125-minute runtime. Chandor opts not to dwell on too much of the criminal or violent acts but instead hones in on the pressures and drama of a husband/wife-run business. It’s a brave move, but some audiences will no doubt be crying out for move of the rough and tumble of mob warfare.
Everyone is suitably coiffed and kitted out to signify their wealth, or at the very least, their aspirations of wealth. Visually the film is a real treat with New York of winter 1981 looking gorgeously grimy and washed out. If you’ve seen TIME photographer Christopher Morris’ shots of the New York Subway in 1981 then you know exactly how this film looks. Bradford Young, A Most Violent Year’s director of photography, has also worked on the criminally under-rated Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and this year’s Best Picture nomination Selma and is clearly a supremely talented cinematographer. In interviews Young also credits street photographer Jamel Shabazz with inspiring the look and feel of the film and these influences all bear fruit to result in one of those films where every frame could be printed out and hung on a wall.
The pacing won’t suit everyone but for my money Chandor has put together a strong character-driven tale of a man at war, as much with his conscience as his competitors. If you weren’t sure about Chandor as the real deal, then this will surely convince you.
Released across Ireland on January 23rd 2015