Directed and Written by J.C. Chandor

Starring: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo 

written by jordan dodd

The smooth sounds of bass and brass begin this film, instantly setting the tone for the entire movie. Stylish and subdued, despite the title this is a sedate drama about the threat of violence, and the effects it has on immigrant Abel who is trying to make an honest living in the Oil business. I guess you could say it is in-between his previous two films – there is plenty of dialogue but silence is used effectively at times. It is also incredibly shot, that opening brass really matching the style that New York is presented with, with a couple of great skyline views and a sepia-like colour-palette, which actually makes the film feel more like it is based in the 30’s rather than the 80’s. But I digress, this is a small niggle. I’ve read the ‘K’ word thrown about, and with this film’s expert camerawork paired with a thoughtful score, Kubrickian is a fair analysis of at least some elements.


The first thing I noticed about this was the use of sound, not only that fantastic opening track but also at various times the use of silence and scenes without dialogue. This is backed by the often deep, minimalist classical score that underlines a constant sense of impending doom. Sounded bloody great and was even more noticeable in the cinema as it was very deep, and at times there are sudden spikes of volume that always seems to fit what is unfolding on-screen. The title is very apt, as while there is not much violence in the film, many scenes and scenarios are the result of violence. The threat of it looms over the entire movie, and matched with the soundtrack a foreboding atmosphere is created.

Other than the fact 1981 (the year the film is based in) was the most violent year in New York’s history, there is another clear theme: some characters ruminate on the old days when it was safer, when they could do their jobs without needing to grow eyes in the back of their head. It isn’t as easy to do business anymore it would seem, and the rising violence often appears to affect those unready or unwilling to sink to that level, much like Abel. Rather than blood, we witness the events that are the direct result of violence. It is clear throughout the movie that as society becomes more violent, Abel becomes more conflicted as he actually says at one point, perhaps a shout out to Scorsese, “I never wanted to be like a gangster”, but his traditional ways are being muscled around by violence against his company.

The smooth track that opens the film

Abel is an immigrant who has landed on US shores looking for the American Dream; this film illustrates the reality of attempting to realise that dream, and more specifically the reality of what it involves… Capitalism and business, competition… deceit, lying. Violence. These traits are inherently a part of capitalism if someone wants to make money and lacks any moral direction. For example, would you tell a customer that another store sold the best mobile phones? This film is a great example of the next step society took in people’s greed for money, as not only is violence used for financial gain but there is an overwhelming feeling of selfishness among many characters, most notably Abel…

… And in addition to a commentary on business and the inevitable pitfalls of capitalism, this film is equally an interesting character study of an immigrant to the US trying to make his company work, trying to find the American Dream that so many south of the border dream of. He is a fascinating character, at times selfish but always honourable. His refusal to fight fire with fire places him under pressure, and I was eventually wondering whether he was going to snap under the pressure of trying to protect his business while simultaneously expanding it. I wasn’t ever sure what to think of him, as at times he seemed manipulative, but not in an evil way. His stubbornness is also what makes this movie and what makes his situation worse, though it was never great to start with. If your oil-tanker drivers are getting attacked, how the hell would you respond? Abel’s actions are convincing while often conflicting; he is one of the more intricately detailed characters I can think of in a recent drama. His wife plays a role in the story too, and while the focus is heavily on Abel, his wife is also a pragmatic and opinionated women who is obviously used to an easy life, and coming out on top in business with her husband. The head police officer offers some interesting insights as well, especially at the end which summed up the major themes of the movie with precision.

The dialogue and acting are amazing. Isaac is fantastic again, this guy is insanely multi-talented, speaking Greek in his last film and in this film Spanish, after coming from nowhere in the Coens’ last film. Jessica Chastain is great as Abel’s temperamental wife and David Oyelowo is serviceable in the role as the head police officer in a limited and somewhat wasted role. I really can’t think of much else wrong with this one…. I feel like I have said that phrase a lot recently. This awards season has been very fruitful.

4/5 – A great slow-burn drama that was perhaps too slow at times, but the second half really picked up the pace. Technically the movie is almost perfect, looking and sounding brilliant, but a couple of scenes were very predictable, and the first act certainly drags. Perhaps a misleading title, and while I disagree with that notion, the movie could have used a bit more action. But as a drama this is very good flick. See it in the cinemas, the sound is incredible!