A Most Violent Year (2014), the excellent latest work from director J.C. Chandor, is a gangster film about a man doing everything he can not to become a gangster. More than any other genre, each new instalment is partially defined by its predecessors. Chandor’s debt to great works of the past is certainly prominent – indeed, the meticulous production design and gloomy Gordon Willis aesthetic verge on fetish – but its brilliance lies in its deft alterations. The protagonist, would-be oil baron Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), is a man striving for legitimacy in a business, city and even a country that appears anathema to his goal.
An new expansion plan embodies the picture’s central struggle; it becomes the battleground of an ethos at the dawn of the Reagan era. A Most Violent Year is first rate New Hollywood revisionism and projects a course which the movement never got the chance to take. It operates as a hypothetical alternative history in which the auteurist empire continued its reign in Hollywood long past Heaven’s Gate (1980). The New York of A Most Violent Year represents the crystallisation of Nixonland; the groundwork having been set, a decade of growth and greed is ready to begin. Abel is like Claude Laydu in Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951), his plight for legitimacy at odds with the world in which he operates.
Time is an essential component; the structure of the film is dictated by the timeframe Abel has to close a contract for his new acquisition. The rush to completion is a race to moral consummation. If he can amass the money he needs without transgressing his own code, he will win. The title itself points to this temporality; it’s as if 1981 is a year out of the American narrative in which everything can be re-set for the coming decade. It’s inescapable that this approach to time presents Chandor with an uphill struggle; as well as leaving himself open to accusations of genre pastiche, he inevitably loses that ingrained sense of anxiety inherent in the great crime movies of the New Hollywood era by being 35 years removed from it. But he replaces that urgent pessimism with a sense of gloomy, sober reflection. What is lost in Nixon-era angst is gained by contemplative hindsight.
What is New Hollywood revisionism in 2015? The spirit of the movement may be survived by directors like Paul Thomas Anderson and Kathryn Bigelow, but what is missing is that sense of engagement and willingness to embrace moral uncertainties. As terrific as a picture like A Most Violent Year is, it still guides us to the past. Not only should the next American cinema point is to the present, we should be prepared to engage in its dialectic. New Hollywood is unresolved history. For many who grew up in its shadow, it has defined how we watch and talk about movies. As directors like Chandor will continue to mine it for riches, we should be prepared to redefine it for the new cinematic century.
Craig Williams | @CraigFilm