A MOST VIOLENT YEAR
2014, R, 125 mins.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.