A Most Violent Year
A Most Violent Year is a throwback - an homage to or recreation of the kinds of movies made by Martin Scorsese and Sidney Lumet during the 1970s. The setting isn't coincidental - J.C. Chandor's film transpires on the mean streets of New York in 1981 - the beginning of a dark time for the city as its annual homicide rate escalated. The "violence" of the title doesn't equate to a high body count but it's evident in the dangerous undercurrent that bubbles just beneath the surface. There's a sense that something bad could happen at any moment even if it's as mundane an event as a deer literally in the headlights. This isn't a revolutionary or thematically rich motion picture, but it's a well-told story featuring solid performances and a nice sense of atmosphere.
Chandor's previous outing, All Is Lost, paired him with veteran actor Robert Redford (and no one else). This time, he surrounds himself with younger talent - the recently hot Oscar Isaac and the sure-to-win-an-Oscar-someday-soon Jessica Chastain. They play Abel and Anna Morales, newcomers to the heating oil business. Abel purchased this from his father-in-law, a known gangster, and is making every effort to turn around the company's reputation by "doing the right things." He has just put down a huge downpayment on the purchase of a neighboring property - money he stands to lose if he can't raise the rest of the price within 30 days. The bank backs out when it becomes clear that the DA (David Oyelowo) is about to indict Abel as part of his mandate to clean up the oil heating business. Meanwhile, his trucks are being hijacked and his drivers assaulted, resulting in an ultimatum from the leader of the teamsters about arming "his people."
From a character perspective, the most intriguing aspect of A Most Violent Year is watching Abel beat back his darker impulses. At times, he resembles Sonny Corleone - a decent man surrounded by violence and struggling against its seduction. His gun-toting wife castigates him for being weak, his lawyer (Albert Brooks) warns him that they may have to cross a line or two, and there's a least one instance when he loses his cool. It's a strong performance by Isaac; we admire Abel for his integrity and toughness while at the same time wondering if the only way out of his predicament is to get in the mud with those trying to bring him down.
The script offers a rarity in today's climate: a story where the ending doesn't seem predetermined and in which the evolution of the plot trumps all other concerns. Throughout the course of A Most Violent Year, I was never sure how things would be resolved or how the character of Julian (Elyes Gabel), one of Abel's assaulted drivers, would play into things. I didn't anticipate the outcome. Chandor's direction is low-key and straightforward. He's interested in using atmosphere to elevate his film rather than relying on show-off directorial flourishes. Cinematographer Bradford Young keeps things dark; even the outdoor scenes are grim and cloudy. This is a gritty New York we rarely see any more, except perhaps in the films of James Gray who, like Chandor, is fond of honoring his cinematic forebears.
The Academy denied Jessica Chastain a supporting actress nomination (favoring a cheesy over-the-top turn by annual selectee Meryl Streep) for a nuanced performance as a woman who believes fervently in her husband but whose sharp edges were honed by spending years in her father's household. Chastain has some dark scenes to go along with those in which Anna displays humanity and vulnerability. Her chief concern is her family's safety and if Abel won't ensure it, she will.
A Most Violent Year may have difficulty finding an audience because those who might appreciate what it has to offer are of an age when venturing to a multiplex is more of a chore than an enjoyment. Fortunately, a brooding film like this should play well on home video, so that's when viewers may encounter it. Regardless of where and when it's seen, it deserves to be discovered, especially by those with a soft spot for the gritty crime dramas of the '70s in which the distinction between "gangster" and "businessman" was often in the eye of the beholder.
© 2015 James Berardinelli