A tour company’s electric billboard blinks in the Chicago twilight as the wave of Tony Camonte’s ambition crests and breaks. His apartment besieged by police, the cornered mafioso makes a run for it and is gunned down in the street, the words “The world is yours” hovering over his dying body.
This final scene of Howard Hawks’s seminal 1932 mob movie Scarface speaks with startling economy to the cruel and surreptitious exclusivity of the American Dream. The emergence of the gangster film in the Depression-era United States gave cinematic expression to the criminal shadow economy that was the result of mass immigration after the rise of fascism in Italy, poverty because of a recession and the illicit business opportunity presented by the prohibition on liquor.
Scarface laid down a persistent cinematic blueprint for the story of the archetypal antihero of economic marginalisation that has resurfaced time and again – from Al Pacino’s Tony Montana in Brian de Palma’s 1980s remake to Lucky Kunene in Ralph Ziman’s Jerusalema in post-millennium South Africa.
The tragedy of the cinematic gangster is that he is guided by the very same principles embraced by the respectable society from which he is excluded. Acquisitiveness, competition, territoriality and conspicuous consumption are not only acceptable but also desirable attributes – the lubricant in the cogs of progress. But despite his enterprising spirit, his poor background typically forces him on to the wrong side of the law and towards his inevitable demise.
But if Tony Camonte is the “Shame of the Nation”, as the film is alternatively known, then the protagonist of JC Chandor’s superb A Most Violent Year, Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), embodies its pride. By ingeniously inverting the genre through a masterful stroke of characterisation, Chandor’s third film braids together threads of complex social incisiveness with respectful classical undertones of Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese.
Like most gangster films, the timeless predicament is given a gravity and grittiness by a very specific historical setting. One of the most violent years in New York City’s history, 1981, was also a turbulent economic moment. Simultaneous deregulation of the financial sector and major economic troubles meant that, for opportunists, risk was high, but the potential of great reward glittered like gold in the city’s winter light.
Here we find camel-coated Abel, resembling Michael Corleone in ambition and appearance, but wanting more than just the material trappings of the rising entrepreneur; he wants respectability, not just respect. A Colombian immigrant, he is a ruthlessly principled self-made man perched precariously on the precipice of success. In a move steeped in dense metaphor, he lays down a large deposit on a strategically located heating oil storage facility on the riverside, which offers a vantage point from which the cityscape, complete with Twin Towers, floats like a promise on the horizon.
This promise is threatened by forces of corruptibility inherent to ascending the corporate hierarchy: an amorphous criminal element has been hijacking his trucks, suspicious law enforcement embodied by district attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo) who is under pressure to clean up the industry is on his case, and his spirited and commanding wife, (Jessica Chastain), a mobster’s daughter is keeping both the books and her own secrets. Under these conditions the narrative becomes focused on Abel’s need to maintain his legitimate position in a world he aspires to conquer. His material success comes to depend on his reputation, as his bankers do an about-turn on their promise to lend him the remainder of the money and he faces the prospect of losing everything.
As his desperation and paranoia are escalated in artfully subtle increments, his scruples are tested in icy euphemistic jargon that echoes the tone of an “offer that can’t be refused” – the suffocating minutiae of the game securing and maintaining power in business. In beautifully crisp, cool yellows, Chandor confounds simple divisions between good and evil, obliterating any association between “standard business practice” and human decency.
A Most Violent Year is a layered and complex ethical deconstruction of neoliberalism. Although Abel is what would traditionally be called a good man, his uncompromising morality is, ultimately, self-serving. His desire is not simply to be good, but rather to be beyond reproach, such that, in a tense moment involving a mortally injured deer, his wife proves that being a trigger-happy moll might occasionally be the more humane position.
As the film draws to a close, it becomes evident that his adherence to principle is not victimless.
But Abel has already proven that he is everything he ought to be, and that as long as he stays within the law, epitomising a certain capitalist stoicism while in pursuit of expansion for its own sake without question, he can avoid Tony Camonte’s fate and the world can, indeed, be his.