A Most Violent Year opens on a winter’s morning in New York, as barges ply the East River. Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) runs along backstreets overshadowed by abandoned warehouses, and the soundtrack is Marvin Gaye’s ‘Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)’ – a masterpiece of icy, paranoid funk. The year is 1981, a violent year indeed for New York, with the city gripped by economic decline and escalating crime rates. News reports roll call the latest homicide victims, but it is villainy of a slipperier, subtler kind that drives the plot of this film.
Columbian-born Abel Morales is the owner of Standard Oil, a heating oil company which he is determined to steer towards market dominance. The heating oil business – a vital and competitive industry in a city of long, harsh winters – is riddled with corruption. Rival companies are hijacking each other’s trucks at gun point, the city’s District Attorney office is cracking down on tax evasion and price fixing, and Morales has only 30 days to close a million-dollar, off-the-books property deal on a riverside oil terminal. He is a man under pressure who insists on his blamelessness – ‘I have always taken the path that is most right,’ he says. Perhaps Morales speaks the truth about himself, and perhaps he doesn’t: his right path might simply be the surest route to financial success, whatever that entails. Wide shots of the coveted oil terminal allow us glimpses of the Manhattan skyline, where the real money lies – an intermittent reminder of the protagonist’s ambitions, and of his frailties.
A Most Violent Year is American director J.C. Chandor’s third feature film, after Margin Call (2011), a brilliantly observed ensemble drama set in a New York investment bank during the early days of the 2008 financial crisis, and All Is Lost (2013), a film largely devoid of dialogue, starring Robert Redford as a lone sailor adrift on the Atlantic Ocean in a sinking yacht. Chandor’s films have been shaped by the recognition that human beings in times of crisis are far less principled than they might like to believe. A Most Violent Year has an atmosphere of all-pervading dread, like a film noir, as if the polluted air of New York itself was causing people to act against their better intentions. Morales’ wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), is a Mafia princess who seems to have wandered in from another, more cartoonish film, though she and her husband do make a striking pair, swaddled against the cold and their own moral decay in expensive woollen coats. A Most Violent Year is uneven in pace and tone, as events threaten to erupt and then simmer down again, but despite its flaws, it lingers in the mind.
Even more haunting and more noir is A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, a memorably audacious debut feature from American-Iranian director Ana Lily Amirpour. Word-of-mouth excitement has trailed this film since its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in 2014, and for once the buzz is justified. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night deftly mixes genre tropes while creating its own singular, surreal universe. I’ve never seen another a film where a female vampire dressed in a chador rides a skateboard, that’s for sure.
The Girl (Sheila Vand) haunts the streets of Bad City, a desolate town where one of each outsider type is gathered: the miserable junkie Hossein (Marshall Manesh), the ageing prostitute Atti (Mozhan Marnò), and the preening pimp Saeed (Dominic Rains). Connected to all of them is the young, handsome Arash (Arash Marandi), son of Hossein and the film’s only innocent. Dressed as Dracula for a costume party, he meets The Girl while high on ecstasy and writhing beneath a street lamp.
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is the kind of overdetermined work from which a thousand Film Studies essays will bloom. From oil drills thrusting on the outskirts of Bad City to tubes of lipstick to hypodermic syringes, it is a film of phallic symbols gleefully undermined. ‘Vampires were supposed to menace women,’ writes the feminist academic Nina Auerbach in her book Our Vampires, Ourselves (1995). In keeping with the long tradition of vampire literature, this menace is simultaneously a fantasy of submission: a virgin girl helpless before a predator’s lust. The Girl of Amirpour’s film is far from submissive and hardly sexy, either. She is vengeful, and her vengeance is wreaked upon male vanity and male violence.
The film is shot in sumptuous black and white, and filled with showy, wide-angle, deep-focus shots of the sort that Orson Welles would have applauded. It is Touch of Evil meets Bonnie and Clyde meets Breathless meets fill-in-your-film-reference-here. Shot in California, scripted in Farsi, and acted largely by an American-Iranian cast, it is, like A Most Violent Year, a film about the fears and dreams of the immigrant in America. Can Arash and The Girl make it out of Bad City? Maybe, but they might not make it out alive.