Friday, February 06, 2015

A Most Violent Year

J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year is a major achievement, a film that evokes the best of 1970’s New York cinema while also aspiring to be genuine tragedy. The omission of Chandor’s third feature from major year-end awards consideration is a harder story to tell than the overlooking of Selma, but not recognizing A Most Violent Year for its acting, directing, writing, and design is almost as serious a mistake. The film takes place over a month in the winter of 1981. Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is the owner of a New York City heating oil business who has ambitious plans to expand. Abel’s purchase of a piece of land with oil tanks and river access will make him a major player in the market, but to complete the deal he must come up with $1.5 million in 30 days. The plans of Abel and his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) are complicated by a prosecutor (David Oyelowo) investigating Abel’s company and by a series of attacks on Abel’s trucks that he believes are the work of one of his competitors. Abel is a man committed (to a fault) to honor, and as pressure builds he refuses help from both a Teamster boss (Peter Gerety, whose character wants to arm Abel’s drivers) and his wife (whose family has organized crime ties).

Many scenes in A Most Violent Year are scored to the sound of a radio news reader detailing violent crime. The New York of this film is one we haven’t seen in quite while, it’s a run down city far removed from the post-Giuliani, Disney on Broadway attraction of today. I happened to stay through most of the credits and noted the production employed its own graffiti artists, no doubt to provide texture to scenes like the chase that moves from car to foot to subway as Abel tracks a man who has stolen his truck. That chase concludes with the most violent act Abel performs in the film, and it’s a measure of the restraint Chandor achieves throughout that the question of how far Abel will go becomes so gripping. Oscar Isaac achieves a wonderful coiled anger under Abel’s smooth surface, if you only know Isaac from Inside Llewyn Davis you might not recognize him here. This film is also a family drama, and at home Abel is in turn fueled by Anna’s belief in his success and frightened of what she will do in his name. Chastain plays Anna as capable of anything, and her family connections - alluded to but left off stage - represent a way out that Abel doesn’t want to take. Chandor has cast with an eye to filling out even the briefest scenes. Albert Brooks is rumpled and worn in a very specific way as Abel’s lawyer, and Abel’s business rivals include Alessandro Nivola and David Margulies. Catalina Sandino Moreno, with an Oscar nomination on her resume, shows up for a one scene role as a woman who gets in the way when Abel must find a vanished driver who has brought his business unwelcome attention.

J.C. Chandor’s true subject here is power, and more importantly the different ways power can be achieved. Abel realizes that real power comes through leverage, and in the end even Oyelowo’s prosecutor seems to have learned this lesson. After Abel’s business dealings are settled thanks to the film’s one misstep, a contrivance involving a large sum of hidden money, Chandor ends on an unusually ambiguous note as if to acknowledge how tenuous Abel’s situation really is. There isn’t anything ambiguous about how good A Most Violent Year is, or about the promise of what J.C. Chandor might do next.

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