REVIEW: A Most Violent Year

23 01 2015

A Most Violent YearThe twelve months referred to in the title of “A Most Violent Year” are those of 1981, a period that saw an unprecedented spike in crime within the boroughs of New York City.  This illegality is not the story of the film, though; it is merely an intriguing backdrop for the saga of Oscar Isaac’s Abel Morales as he attempts to expand his property holdings in order to become a more competitive player in the heating oil business.  All the world seems to be operating without regard to law or ethics, and it practically invites him to abandon moral high ground.

Abel clings stubbornly to his principles, refusing to arm his trucks even when they get held up and robbed.  The film rarely mentions this, but Abel is an immigrant from Colombia who married into a leadership role in the company.  While mostly masks the traces of his accent, the effect of his heritage is present in every decision he makes.  Abel realizes how far he has come, as well as how far he has to tumble with just a single prideful misstep.

Isaac makes this deliberative stoicism absolutely riveting, coloring Abel with shades of Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone from “The Godfather” series.  He knows when the character is weak, when he is strong, and, most importantly, when he has absolutely no idea why any of it is worth the trouble.  It’s one of the beautiful ironies of “A Most Violent Year” that Isaac seems so in control of Abel, yet each passing scene in the film slowly strips away the illusion of control of his destiny from the character.

Jessica Chastain in A Most Violent Year

Isaac’s finds his rigor matched, if not exceeded, by writer/director J.C. Chandor in “A Most Violent Year.”  Abel is in nearly every scene of the film, but so is Chandor, demonstrating his precision.  Every detail of the frame bears the stamp of his eye for ensuring the finest of details is correct.  This extends to the coke-bottle glasses and classy threads of the costume design, the graffitied city walls and sterile domestic interiors of the production design, and even every brush of fabric in the sound of the film.  Bradford Young’s muted and subtly impactful cinematography captures them all.

Even though all this expert attention to the minutiae impresses, “A Most Violent Year” sometimes feels a little too carefully constructed for its own good.  The film is a textbook example of the slow burn, yet Chandor sets his pot to simmer for so long that it often feels lacking in heat altogether.  The intense calculations begin to feel rather cold (a sensation amplified somewhat by the lingering winter snow that never seems to disappear), so deliberate that it seems nothing exciting or erratic could really occur in the environment.

Well … except for Jessica Chastain, who plays Abel’s wife, Anna.  She crunches the numbers for the business, although she is certainly not afraid to cook the books a little.  Anna really holds the power in both the personal and professional relationship, a dynamic Chastain milks for all its worth.  She constantly urges him to come off his high horse for the sake of the company and makes some pretty convincing arguments.

While Anna does not appear nearly enough in “A Most Violent Year,” her presence always injects some welcome tension into the proceedings.  With each line Anna spits out, she moves Abel closer and closer to his boiling point.  Anticipating that moment, far more than the business outcome, becomes the propulsion of the film.  B+3stars

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