Admirably, 'A Most Violent Year' Forgets the Violence
Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain pump the breaks in the slow-burning thriller.
Where's the violence? Writer/director J.C Chandor's latest, A Most Violent Year, fulfills little of its titular promise. But violence can take many shapes, and Chandor is more interested in its effect than in the act itself. A Most Violent Year tells the story of one man who, when confronted with violence, chooses to ignore it in pursuit of something bigger.
Set in 1981, when New York City was the Wild West, A Most Violent Year begins with a truck hijacking. Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), an oil distributor, has seen a number of his rigs go missing recently and he knows a competitor is doing it. There are only so many places oil can go in New York and if the other guys aren't behind it, they're encouraging the crimes by buying it.
But Abel remains steadfast. He's in a tough business and he tells his drivers not to respond, and not to arm themselves. He won't risk what he's built. He's also in the midst of acquiring a piece of the waterfront in Queens that will secure his and his family's future.
His family includes his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), a mobster's daughter who's the loose cannon of the two, and their two small daughters. They've all just moved into a giant new house and Abel has their savings tied into his waterfront deal. He's obsessed with completing it, but an ambitious D.A. (David Oyelowo), tasked with cleaning up the industry, keeps snooping around. This puts his loan at risk, and Abel is forced to scramble to secure backup funding and save his future.
Admittedly, A Most Violent Year is a slow movie. It's pain-stakingly slow in fact, in every way. But it's a film so rich in craft and theme, it's impossible not to admire it. Chandor has made a microcosm of American capitalism with a 125 minute feature. The business owner ignores the safety and well-being of the workers on the front lines as long as his, and his family's, lives are secure. He will risk everything he has in order to get more with little regard for the businesses he puts out along the way. And he will amass incredible debt to get there. It's a parable. It's a cautionary tale. It's the American Dream.
It's also the heart of the gangster genre, whose look, especially The Godfather, Chandor borrows for his tale. He and cinematographer Bradford Young (Ain't Them Bodies Saints) use a golden color palette and long, thoughtful takes, which adds romance to the reality of what's happening onscreen. A period film doesn't have to be nostalgic, but it does have to take you there. Young's work assures that, along with Kasia Walicka-Maimone's upscale costume design. A Most Violent Year looks like a vintage Armani ad at times.
An immigrant, Abel has a lot in common with the Michael Corelones and Tony Montanas of the world. He's driven, and Isaac displays razor sharp focus in the role. The actor is in nearly every frame and he never wavers. Isaac employs the same self-righteousness whether he's talking to his employees or his wife. This is a man who will do anything to achieve his goals. Well, almost anything. He refuses to compromise his moral code to use violence or stolen money. He says, "“I have always taken the path that is most right, and that is what this is.” Abel is dead set on doing it his way and you believe him, thanks to Isaac.
Chastain also stands out with another heated performance. The actress is simply great when she's pissed off, and she's under the hot lamp alongside her husband even though the film loses track of her during its second act. Wrapped in a trenchcoat and wearing designer sunglasses, Chastain looks every bit the gangster wife and she's formidable opposite Isaac, who plays things cool.
But the style is New York City, and the setting makes all the performances, shots, and clothes credible. In the background, radios broadcast the news as each day brings more crime and murder with it. It's the most violent year in New York's history, but there are still guys out there trying to do what they think is right. This is one of the most assured films of 2014.