A film review by Craig J. Koban February 9, 2015

A MOST VIOLENT YEAR jjj
 

2014, R, 125 mins.

 

Oscar Isaac as Abel Morales  /  Jessica Chastain as Anna Morales  /  Albert Brooks as Andrew Walsh  /  Elyes Gabel as Julian  /  David Oyelowo as Lawrence  /  Alessandro Nivola as Peter Forente  /  Catalina Sandino Moreno as Luisa

Written and directed by J.C. Chandor

Director J.C. Chandor is a rare breed of filmmaking talent that’s not content with making the same film over and aver again.  

His wonderful 2011 indie film MARGIN CALL was a small scale, but ambitious chronicling of the financial crisis of 2008.  He followed that up with 2014’s ALL IS LOST, which emerged as one of the finest human survival dramas of recent memory.  Now comes A MOST WANTED YEAR, which couldn’t be more different than his previous two films.  Aesthetically, Chandor wants to echo the gritty mean street dramas of the 1970’s that typified the resumes of Sidney Lumet and Martin Scorsese.  A MOST VIOLENT YEAR is a wonderfully evocative throwback film that not only is set during the early 80’s, but also has the look and feel of a film made during that era.  Even when the film falters on a level of narrative momentum and odd pacing choices, Chandor’s directorial prowess shines through at every waking moment.

1981 was the most violent year in New York City’s history (nearly 2000 homicides alone), which is primarily where the film gets its title.  Interestingly, A MOST VIOLENT YEAR is not a wantonly violent film, per se, but rather a commentary on determined businessmen that want to stay legit, but are lured in to use violence as a means to defend their interests.  Chandor seems compelled by the nature of attaining and maintaining the proverbial American Dream via ethical means and, ultimately, the hellish cost that some businessmen face when obstacles come rearing their ugly heads.  The main character in the story is a man that’s hard working, morally centered, and principled.  He believes that honest and hard work is what ultimately segregates him from the pack.  Regrettably, when threats of violence are perpetrated on his operation, he must decide whether to reciprocate in kind to show strength to his enemies – at risk of derailing his good reputation – or doing nothing and show weakness.  A MOST VIOLENT YEAR drums up most of its tension as an urban crime drama with pondering the actions – or inaction – of its main character and the paranoia he suffers through as a result. 

 

 

Set during the aforementioned “most violent year” in New York’s history, Chandor's film deals with Abel Morales (the strapping and assured Oscar Isaac), an extremely prideful and honor-bound businessman that owns and operates Standard Oil with assistance from his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain).  Abel purchased the company from his father-in-law, a relatively well-known gangster that had a penchant for running it using duplicitous and unlawful methods.  Wishing to make Standard Oil legitimate in the eyes of the law, Abel and Anna have strained to financially thrive while doing things “right” and “by the books.”  Things do indeed look bright for the couple and their flourishing company when they make one potentially big step in putting a down payment on a highly lucrative neighboring property that would help elevate their profits to the next level.  Abel’s plan is not without risk, though, seeing as he will lose his very large deposit if he can’t secure the rest of the money to purchase the property within a set period of time. 

Things go south for Abel when a series of violent hijackings occur on his freighter trucks, all of which have unarmed drivers.  People in Abel's inner circle plead with him to give his drivers guns, which he steadfastly refuses as a rather large potential problem if bloodshed resulted.  To make matters worse, a nosy DA (SELMA’s David Oyelowo) wishes to indict Abel on multiple counts of business fraud in any effort to make good on his claims to clean up the streets and the nasty reputation that Abel’s father-in-law left.  As a result of this criminal investigation, Abel loses his loan from the bank to secure the property he wishes to buy...and then more hijackings occur, which leaves Abel pondering whether or not he needs to utilize some questionable methods to stay afloat. 

Chandor shoots A MOST VIOLENT YEAR with such an understated and low-key economy that never draws too much obtrusive attention to itself.  This allows for a fuller immersion in the period settings (framed with such a foreboding beauty and coldness by Bradford Young), but it also allows the film to emphasize the character dynamics in the story as well.  A MOST VIOLENT YEAR is atypically intimate as far as crime thrillers go for the emphasis it places on the fragile mindset of Abel throughout and the emotional crisis of consciences that eats away at him as his business enemies come baring down hard.  This, of course, is hammered home by a thanklessly empowered performance by Isaac, who really, really reminded me of a young and less-flashy Al Pacino.  Isaac has the tricky task of playing Abel as a quiet spoken and reserved man that exudes ample external confidence that nevertheless has his mental toughness tested by a laundry list of unwanted problems.  The real intrigue in A MOST VIOLENT YEAR is in guessing whether or not Abel will descend to his darker impulses and get his hands as dirty as his competition to keep himself financially alive.  Isaac’s cunning performance, in turn, keeps us guessing as well.  

Isaac is flanked by predictably strong work by Chastain, who plays a Lady Macbeth-like wife to Abel that constantly berates his husband’s lack of nerve to do what needs to be done to secure their business in an increasingly violent world.  Their dynamic subverts the typical stereotypes and obligatory character arcs that one finds for husband/wife roles in these types of films: He tries to remain the voice of calm reason, whereas she tries to justify harsher and potentially more criminal means for him to stay on top.  A third voice of reason appears with the superb Albert Brooks, who plays Abel’s attorney and partner that has a rather blunt and plainspoken manner of getting to the heart of issues.  Brooks has this effortless manner of stealing scenes away from his fellow actors for the manner he inhabits them with a matter-of-fact nonchalance.  On a pure performance level, A MOST VIOLENT YEAR is always on solid ground. 

Chandor’s script, though, is perhaps a re-write or two away from true greatness.  The film’s very slow and leisurely pacing hurts it out of the gate and many of the film’s initial conversations – concerning business dealings and ample expository heavy financial diatribes – are a bit tiresome.  Even when the film emerges out of its sluggish first act and begins to simmer with more dramatic intrigue, Chandor seems to get off course with some superfluous subplots that appear and disappear at will, sometimes never really paying off as well as they should have.  One recurring subplot, for instance, involving a dreadfully conflicted and frightened driver of Abel’s that decides to take the law into his own hands seems to write itself into a corner, being dealt with in a climax that’s not completely convincing nor satisfying.  The relatively contrived manner that A MOST VIOLENT YEAR ends sort of betrays the strong foundational elements that preceded it. 

Still, Chandor’s film is a subtly nuanced, reserved, and moody gangster film that places a higher pedigree on atmosphere and the psychological impulses of its characters than most other similar genre efforts (granted, there are a few instances of exhilarating action, like a bravura car and foot chase sequence – right out of THE FRENCH CONNECTION – that has Abel pursuing a thief with one of his stolen trucks).  Yet, A MOST VIOLENT YEAR becomes arguably more enthralling when it focuses on Abel’s internal conflict with dealing with a barrage of pressure cooker situations.  Those looking for a blood spattered crime epic may come out of Chandor’s film disappointed.  On a pure cerebral level, though, A MOST WANTED YEAR is compulsively engaging for how it blurs the line between businessman and crook.

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