A Most Violent Year (2014)
Dir: J.C. Chandor
What’s in a title? The slow-burning procedural A Most Violent Year is a misnomer on par with Naked Lunch (especially in light of some people’s literal interpretation), although it does evoke a particular unease that is sustained throughout. Writer-director J.C. Chandor’s third feature film takes place during the winter of the most violent year on record in New York City, 1981, and traces the Horatio Alger-like birth of The American Dream for one enterprising couple. While there’s not much overt violence to speak of, the spectre of it lurks in the background and heavily informs the story. Like a dormant addiction lying in wait and growing stronger each day, when the bloodshed occurs it’s brutal, symbolic, and essential to the tale of one immigrant’s rising business fortunes amidst the erosion of his values. A Most Violent Year is classic American myth-making.
The film’s circular structure opens with the dapper and poised businessman Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) flanked by his advisor Andrew (Albert Brooks) and about to sign a significant real estate deal with a cadre of Hasidic Jews. The catch – after a considerable non-refundable down payment is made Abel has only a month to close the deal. The ticking clock and compressed timeline provide tension and stakes as Abel has to secure funding and fend off both competitors and prying government eyes as he seeks to expand his heating oil business and grow an empire.
At once it’s clear that this is not the sepia-toned, fast-paced organized crime world of Scorsese’s Goodfellas (which might seem like an antecedent based on surface similarities). A Most Violent Year is more contemplative and deliberate, and more than content to subvert expectations rather than satisfy base desires. Like a straight-edge vegan, A Most Violent Year gets off on withholding and can be defined in many respects by what it doesn’t do or show. With a tempo that’s aarhythmic yet hypnotic and orchestrated to a soulful soundtrack while being driven primarily through dialogue, this is a lean-in movie that demands attention and rewards it in spades. A close cousin would be TV’s The Wire, as both works share a deep fascination of process and men (and women) at work, and how structures and laws exist to be circumvented and broken in the pursuit of power.
J.C. Chandor, having previously explored the minute details of the recent economic collapse (Margin Call) and one man’s Old Testament-like struggle for survival against nature (All Is Lost), turns his gaze here to the import, storage, and sale of heating oil. Isaac stars as Abel, turning in a measured performance that broils with an undercurrent of ambition. Abel is a man of big dreams, a Latino who markedly speaks only English and who runs miles every morning. Despite the armed robbery of his fuel trucks at the hands of unknown competitors, he refuses to stoop to their level and arm his own men, looking instead to earn his fortune the honest way.
If it wasn’t clear from Inside Llewyn Davis (and being cast in the upcoming Star Wars: Episode 7), Isaac is near the rarified air of A-list stardom. And deservedly so, as exudes a naturalism and charm that one can’t help but watch. Abel urges his young sales reps to hold their customer’s gaze longer than is comfortable, to stare into them and wait for them to react, and as he does we feel like we’re on the other end of that penetrating gaze. His Abel struggles mightily against the inevitable violent means that he must employ, a noble man standing against a tide of shit.
Isaac is matched on screen by Jessica Chastain as Anna Morales – Abel’s wife, accountant, and confidante. Chastain gives the louder of the two performances, but she’s never overly broad and often supremely menacing. With long manicured nails that clack along a calculator and a fierce loyalty to her husband, Anna is sketched in quickly but memorably and Chastain imbues her with crackling energy. Anna’s back story is hinted at in fits and spurts (like much of the film, you’ll need to pay close attention and piece together back stories from tantalizing tidbits), but it’s clear that Abel got his start from Anna’s gangster father yet he wants to distance himself from the connection.
What we’re treated to is the inner dynamics of an upwardly mobile couple, both with different views on how to achieve their goals. There’s Abel the idealist and Anna the realist, and as the clock ticks down to their 30-day deadline, Abel scrambles to secure his power as the curdling of The American Dream plays out. It’s gut-wrenching, gripping stuff, told through the lens of a procedural about a seemingly mundane business. Like Chandor’s other films, it’s remarkable how effective A Most Violent Year is when simply showing how something is done. And while some of the dialogue becomes quite literal near the end and somewhat betrays the ellusiveness and oblique themes, it’s doesn’t dull the impact of the movie as a whole.
Impeccable set design and art direction also contribute to creating whole cloth the reality of 1981 New York which, when combined with offbeat but fitting musical choices and lived-in husband-and-wife dynamics, feels in step with TV’s The Americans. There’s also a tense car- and foot-chase that feels right out of The French Connection, solidifying Chandor’s affinity for and homage to old-fashioned movie making that eschews modern trends. However, even with those cultural touchpoints as references, A Most Violent Year proves to be uniquely its own thing – a thrumming, gritty tale of perseverance and bootstrapping entrepreneurialism that’s as alive and vital as the city it takes place in.