Saturday, April 18, 2015

movie review: A Most Violent Year

A Most Violent Year
(USA, 2014)
director: J.C. Chandor

Despite its title, A Most Violent Year should be very boring, and indeed it does start off quite slowly. The camera is weirdly static for long periods of time, there is very little in the way of soundtrack, and there are a lot of intense discussions about the ins and outs of the heating oil business. This does not exactly sound gripping. However, the film builds tension surprisingly well, the cinematography is expertly handled (I was especially impressed by the camerawork in a chase scene in the trainyards), and the cast is uniformly excellent.

We follow Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), an intense New York City businessman, over 30 days in 1981 (the "most violent" year referenced in the title, when New York saw the highest number of murders in its history). Abel makes real estate deals, secures loans, and tries to find out who is robbing his company's heating fuel trucks, all the while doing battle with the district attorney (Peter Oyelowo) who is investigating Standard Heating for a variety of offenses including fraud and tax evasion. This problem with the DA particularly vexes Abel, because he feels he has tried very hard to run an honest, above board business. He has fully bought in to the idea of the immigrant's dream of America, where hard work and ambition will bring success, and so far the idea has worked for him--until now.

We meet Abel's smart and steely wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), whose father originally owned Standard Heating. Anna loves Abel and their two daughters, and she is not about to let anything get in the way of their continued safety and success. At one point, Anna tells Abel he'd better solve his problems, because otherwise she will get involved, and no one is going to be happy if that happens. We find out exactly what she means by that a couple of scenes later.

The film is paced very slowly but deliberately, which adds to Abel's sense of growing dread. The robberies are increasing and getting more violent; the Morales' new mansion is breached; the bank is becoming uneasy about Standard Heating as a loan prospect; the district attorney is becoming more insistent. Abel seems to be unhappily over his head.

The filmmakers managed to assemble a stellar cast, all performing in an understated but powerful way. Chastain is underused, but still riveting in her limited role; Isaac is just as intense and effective as he was in Inside Llewyn Davis, and Oyelowo is pleasant but insistent as he tightens the vise grip on Abel and his business. Albert Brooks is enjoyable as usual as Abel's lawyer, an easygoing, perennially beleaguered guy who is a lot smarter than he seems. And Elyes Gabel is excellent in a small but pivotal role as Julian, the young, inexperienced driver whose truck is carjacked (truckjacked?) at the very beginning of the movie.

A Most Violent Year is understated but it works. At the end, we see that Abel finally understands the steep price for achieving the immigrant's dream in America. Anna knew it all along.

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