Release: Friday, January 23, 2015 (limited)
Written by: J.C. Chandor
Directed by: J.C. Chandor
In what’s likely to shape up to be one of the year’s most misleading titles I have happened upon cinematic bliss in A Most Violent Year, a love/hate letter to the 1980s that trades in what is presumed to be grueling thematic material for authentic human interaction.
Writer/director J.C. Chandor wades out of the pretentious waters of All is Lost with a stunningly realized mood piece centering on a Columbian immigrant and his wife trying to make an honest living during an historically violent and dangerous year in New York City’s history. In the process, he extracts from the steadily-rising Oscar Isaac a career highlight as Abel Morales, a well-dressed man in charge of his own gasoline-based heating company, Standard Oil located on the banks of what appears to be Jersey City. While the setting is purportedly the Big Apple, on a number of occasions we seem to be standing alongside Abel on the opposite shore, looking out at a sprawling jungle of edifice and cold concrete that looms large and a little more than threatening through the lens of cinematographer Bradford Young.
Either way, this gritty, gravel-laden locale is Abel’s future, a spacious lot he hopes to secure by brokering a deal with a group of Hasidic Jews. In securing a 40% down payment on the property it’s clear Abel has a certain level of confidence in his ability to make the deal happen within a month’s time. Though there is sunshine, we’re being transported back to some dark times indeed. Lurking in the background, aside from his hefty obligation to the Chassidim, are random acts of street violence that have repeatedly caused impediments to the growth and stability of Standard Oil; incidences in which several truck drivers delivering several thousand dollars’ worth of gas are forced at gunpoint to relinquish their duties, or else be shot on the spot, often in broad daylight and in the middle of a busy road.
Isaac’s Abel Morales is a man to be admired, particularly in this time, in this place, where a clean business deal is as commonplace as an mP3 player. Crooked men are Walkmans. Abel stands alone as he refuses to stoop to his competitors’ fear-mongering sales tactics. But what price is he paying for his attempt to keep his head above water? After all, he and his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) are guilty by association anyway: Assistant District Attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo) is in the process of going after several gasoline heating companies for assorted fraudulent business practices, his company included. Anna would rather her husband get his hands dirty too and silence his competition — if for no other reason than to keep his family protected — but Abel knows it would be one more thing for the suits to pin on them.
In A Most Violent Year, paranoia doesn’t run rampant; danger truly lurks around every corner. For men like Abel who are head-and-shoulders above their competitors in terms of being a decent human being; for women like Anna who’d rather act first and worry about consequences later, there is entirely too much to lose. Money is an object, but not really. Arguably Abel’s greatest challenge is convincing himself that his approach is right and his wife’s righteously trigger-happy tendencies ultimately are threats to what could become an empire. Stakes run high enough in Chandor’s time capsule without the melodrama some of the more prestigious crime dramas are all too eager to run away with, i.e. backstabbings, betrayals, sudden tragedies.
A Most Violent year is bereft of all but the latter. This beautiful film is an exercise in restraint, and while that was the aim in Chandor’s previous effort, here we can actually really dig into characters that deserve positive outcomes. We can dissect them and discuss them. Not dismiss them. It’s early in the year, but I might have found one of my favorites of 2015 in this gripping morality play.
Recommendation: Though the promotional effort surrounding J.C. Chandor’s latest is somewhat misleading (this is hardly an action thriller), those wanting a realistic, humanistic piece will certainly get it in A Most Violent Year. Fans of the incredibly talented Oscar Isaac (and the rest of this cast) are sure to not be disappointed either.
Running Time: 125 mins.
Quoted: “When it feels scary to jump, that is exactly when you jump, otherwise you end up staying in the same place your whole life, and that I can’t do.”
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