by Philip Price
As you allow “A Most Violent Year” to slowly sink in the first theme you recognize is truth. Complete honesty is the way Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) chooses to conduct himself and throughout the entire running time of the film it is difficult to decipher whether or not he is a corrupt man who wants to believe he is good or if he genuinely strives to be honorable. With this kind of reciprocal psychology constantly battling within Abel, Isaac is able to dig in and deliver a performance that continues to prove his excellence while also anchoring the film with the bigger ideas that director J.C. Chandor (“Margin Call,” “All is Lost”) is intending to convey. Within Abel Morales, Isaac finds a man who we don’t get much insight on up to the point that we meet him. He is an oil distributor, he is attempting to acquire a piece of real estate that will do nothing but expand his business and his control on the market, but to reach this point of seeming solidarity within his business and personal lives he will have to make choices not akin to his way of thinking; choices influenced by the time period Chandor has chosen to place these characters in. In not really knowing the mentality of this character and only having it slowly revealed to us over the course of two hours, we are kept in a constant state of suspense with Isaac at the steering wheel taking us only as far as Abel is willing to bend his morality. It is an interesting take on what could have easily been a more “Goodfellas” or “Scarface” inspired film, but rather than make this about the mob or about being a gangster as we generally think of them we are given this idea on what it truly takes to get what you want, to earn real respect. There is plenty to like and admire about “A Most Violent Year” and its methodical sense of storytelling, but it can’t help but feel somewhat scattered in getting the sum of its parts to come together and deliver a wholly satisfying conclusion. Chandor clearly knows what he is doing and is somewhat of a master at putting the pieces in place and building the tension, but it is the payoff where things don’t necessarily feel as compelling as one might expect. Given the grace and precision with which he puts these pieces in play I expected more from the third act, but in a film full of atmosphere and subtly great performances, it is hard to complain at all.
Set in 1981, New York City’s statistically most violent year with rampant violence, decay and corruption taking over aspects of everyday life, we are introduced to Abel and his lawyer Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks) as they attempt to close on the aforementioned real estate deal with the Jew who currently owns it. They meet at the site, an abandoned bay where oil rigs sit with nothing to do while vacant trailers where dock managers once presided over their crews are trashed and deserted. It is funny to think now of what once was to this thriving adult in 1981 who wasn’t thinking as much ahead as he was in the moment, but that is only a small caveat of the intended backdrop Chandor alludes to with his setting. In order to secure this deal Abel must deliver a hefty sum of money that he would normally be able to rely on his bank for. With incidents surrounding the robbing and stealing of his trucks and his drivers pushing him to allow them to carry handguns, not to mention the city district attorney (David Oyelowo) coming down on him and his company for questionable business practices, the thirty day wait for the loan to be approved and the papers signed becomes even more of a white knuckle waiting game. It is in this amount of time that we see the inner-workings and dealings of what it takes for Abel and his more willing to break the law other half, Anna (Jessica Chastain), do what it takes to keep their American dream afloat. Their singular task is to capitalize on the opportunity in front of them, but as we are delivered more information as Abel talks to his associates in trying to solve the issue of his trucks getting robbed and his product being sold to his competitors we are privy to the backdoor dealings necessary to reach the point of peaceful and prosperous results. “A Most Violent Year” is all about the struggle with which it takes to reach this point of comfort and the amount of inconvenience and distress it takes to get there. In lining up this tale of ambition it makes a point of feeding how compromising a man must be in order to reach the point of never being so again.
Atmosphere is key to Chandor’s film as cinematographer Bradford Young (“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” “Pariah”) and the director give us more to appreciate than most films in visual cues and references alone. When taking the title into consideration one might expect a fair amount of brutality, but only every so often does the film escalate to all-out physical attacks. When the physicality is present is when the film shows how effective it is at making these more heightened moments all the more meaningful and exciting by allowing the more disturbing violence to exist in the exchanging of words and lies amidst the truth our protagonist swears by. I bring up the pacing of these small moments into the bigger action set pieces to discuss the integral sense the environment plays in it all. Chandor has set his film during this specific year for clear reasons, but he didn’t necessarily have to. It is in the way he crafts his images, darkly lit and framed like the crime dramas of the decade it is set within, that bring us into the world these characters populate. Their tan peacoats and Ray Bans with the all brass ornaments that decorate their square homes dressed with patterned couches never interfere with the dark overtones of the material but rather bolster the lost world atmosphere of it all. Chandor makes this familiar but strange land seem something of a mythical, almost untouchable status that we will never be able to re-visit and he is right for doing so. He wants Abel to feel untouchable, to feel so invulnerable to everything going on around him that placing him in this time period sets him apart from the more seemingly cynical mentality of today. It’s not cynicism or narcissism driving this man, but it is purely a quest to prove his roots and naysayers wrong, to show that he can come from nothing and build an empire to which he will be hailed as king of and admired by his peers for doing what they could not. Were this to be set in present day that separation wouldn’t exist, but it is in Chandor’s concise decisions and detailed direction that the 80’s setting not only emphasizes a lost way of life, but a crucial disconnect to which the audience still admires the characters even if we never really get to know them.
“A Most Violent Year” is one of those movies I can appreciate, but will likely never have the desire to sit through again. Funny enough, you could say the same of Chandor’s previous film. “All is Lost” was a captivating experience that placed us in the middle of pure isolation with the silence forcing us to question the big themes of the film. Chandor’s latest is drastically different, but is still incredibly restrained. In almost every aspect this is true – from the images we’re allowed to see, the subdued and haunting score that compliments the atmosphere further and even the central performance from Isaac. There is one scene in particular where Isaac’s Abel storms into the apartment of one of his drivers looking for him and only finding his Hispanic wife. The two swap an intense set of words, but the catch is that they speak in Spanish the entire scene. There are no subtitles presented and so it is up to the audience (if they don’t know the language, obviously) to interpret what is being said. Because of the power of the performances we understand the implications being made and Isaac is simply exceptional in peeling back the many facets of Abel the deeper we get into the plot. I would have loved to see more of Chastain’s electric co-lead and the movie certainly could have used more of her presence. We are only given glimpses of just how well the juxtaposition of these two mentalities works within their marriage, but for as much as Chastain’s Anna influences her husband’s decisions she is absent for much of the negotiations. This underwritten sense is unfortunate as this could have truly been a role that allowed the talented actress to chew some serious scenery. There are a handful of fantastic scenes such as the one mentioned above that fully capture the time period, the attention to detail and the superb acting that all merge to create the pitch-perfect mood of the piece, but unfortunately it never feels it adds up to be more than admirable as much as it wants to feel cutting. Still, by virtue of its cast and credentials alone this will strike most as an interesting film and I will no doubt come to appreciate the film for its technical achievements and reserved approach that deals as much in the details of its plot as it does in the perception of what it takes to achieve that American dream we so desperately believe has always been just out of arms reach.