A Most Violent Year (2014)
The result is never in question, just the path you take to get there.
Let me start by stating, there’s surprisingly little violence found in a picture titled, A Most Violent Year. Nonetheless, this character-driven drama marks a return to gritty form for Oscar nominated writer-director, J.C. Chandor, Margin Call (2011). With his latest feature, A Most Violent Year, Chandor explores the thresholds of moral danger and haziness through the story of Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), an immigrant striving for the American Dream in a city fraught with violence, distortion and decay. Based in New York during the winter of 1981 — statistically the most dangerous year in the city’s history — the picture is set after the fuel crisis of the 1970s, when the once booming metropolis — during the 1920s — plummeted to a sputtering halt in the 1960s, which led to budget cuts, political corruption and a soaring crime rate.
A Most Violent Year essentially takes place over a few days and focuses on the life of Abel Morales, who, together with his Brooklyn-bred wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), has built a small heating-oil enterprise, Standard Oil, which he purchased from his wife’s gangster father. Vowing to run a lawful ‘clean’ business, the ambitious Abel quickly discovers that the ladder to success is a crooked one. The film begins when Abel puts a deposit on a plot of land in Brooklyn, just across the river from Lower Manhattan, where global commerce still runs supreme today. While Abel scrambles to pull together the full balance for the land, tension rises as a number of thugs begin assaulting his small fleet of drivers, stealing their fuel, and then selling it to illegitimate buyers. To make matters worse, a determined Assistant District Attorney, Lawrence (David Oyelowo), simultaneously launches an investigation into the company’s accounts, accusing Abel of tax evasion and fraud. Now, with the odds stacked up against him, the exposed Abel must grapple with a number of moral decisions, which threaten both the business he has built, and the life he has shaped for himself and his family.
Similar to Chandor’s previous works, A Most Violent Year explores the murkiness behind the choices people make in order to get ahead in life, the compromises we accept to protect the ones we love, and the ramifications of our decisions, particularly how they affect those around us. More specifically, A Most Violent Year hones in on the self-reliant Abel Morales, as his journey is one of risk and reward, putting himself in a vulnerable position for a chance at greater success. Over the course of the film, we discover that Morales is a deeply complex and conflicted character, a family man with the potential to turn to immorality if pushed to the brink of professional ruin. A bit of a slow-burner, A Most Violent Year is tightly coiled and perfectly constructed — it could possibly be the subtlest crime film ever made — as Chandor’s powerfully gripping screenplay surveys the inner-workings of an anti-gangster in an overly-gangster environment, a man trying to retain his honor in a corrupt business. With deliberate steady pacing and drawn out conversations — the picture never feels rushed — the flick’s few visceral thrills work well against Chandor’s boiling tension, ultimately aiding the feature’s edgy atmospheric nature.
Coming off his breakthrough act in the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), lead Oscar Isaac gives an earnest, believable performance as Abel Morales, delivering a compelling portrayal of a torn individual as Isaac’s every grimace, frown, and wrinkled eyebrow speaks a thousand words. What’s more, Isaac — who keeps getting better with each passing film — truly immerses himself in the role, exhibiting sophistication, confidence and ferocity while underlining the virtues of a man viewers can surely root for and empathize with. Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty (2012), is equally as commanding as Anna Morales, the firm willed, strong-minded mother, supportive wife and company bookkeeper, challenging anyone she sees as a potential threat in her life, almost like a lioness protecting her cubs; the Brooklyn accent, the temper, the guilt, the sex appeal, it’s all there! Albert Brooks, Drive (2011), is a welcome addition to the cast as consigliere-type lawyer, Andrew Walsh, helping Abel through the intricate machinations of a business world that feels Mafia-like in its reach, whereas Elyes Gabel, Interstellar (2014), is convincing as Abel’s protégé truck-driver, Julian, who is attacked and dumped on an expressway by a couple of hooligans early on in the picture.
Taking place in New York City at the dawn of the 1980s, the feature’s thematically rich setting has been meticulously re-created by production designer, John P. Goldsmith, No Country for Old Men (2007). With drab, caramel-colored tans and browns, Goldsmith fashions a truthful portrait of the era, from its crumbling industrial spaces to graffiti-coated subway cars; this stylized throwback to the late-70s/ early-80s is totally and utterly flawless. Visual effects supervisor Mark Russell, Synecdoche, New York (2008), claims that New York was a very different place back then as parts of the city were covered with graffiti or street art, most of which had to be digitally added in post-production in an effort to dirty the area up, whilst certain buildings and landmarks were either replaced or removed to render the city as accurately as possible.
Furthermore, the flick’s costume design by Kasia Walicka-Maimone, Moonrise Kingdom (2012) is just as faithful to the period yet never takes anything away from the narrative. Chastain is seen clad in vintage Armani from 1981, while Isaac’s tailor-made suits express the rigidity and steadfastness of the immigrant’s struggle to succeed in the business world. Other standout costumes include a preppy Fila tennis outfit worn by Peter Forente (Alessandro Nivola), Abel’s more successful heating-oil competitor, and let’s not forget about those big bulky garments, often worn for protection against attackers. As a good portion of the picture takes place in winter, around snow, Kentucky-born cinematographer Bradford Young, Selma (2014), does an amazing job composing the film, presenting some of the most incredible wintery wide shots in recent memory — reminiscent of the Coen brothers’ Fargo (1996) — giving the feature a broader scope with his first-rate imagery, capturing the city’s chilliness and decay in a sharp, precise way.
After a terrific opening, featuring Marvin Gaye’s ‘Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),’ it quickly becomes apparent that A Most Violent Year isn’t the epic mob movie it’s been advertised as, and therefore certainly won’t appeal to everyone — those aching for gunfire and explosions should look elsewhere. Either way, this stylish, sophisticated and simmering picture features excellent writing, stylish directing, and superb performances, in the end presenting a microscopic character study that dissects morality down to its nucleus.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Mr. Movie
A Most Violent Year is released through Roadshow Entertainment Australia