Tuesday, February 10, 2015

A Most Violent Year

A MOST VIOLENT YEAR (J.C. Chandor, 2014)

While teaching his salespeople how to secure contracts for his heating oil company Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) says, “You will never do anything as hard as staring someone straight in the eye and telling the truth.” In A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, set in 1981 New York City, Abel wants to be an honest man in a dirty business in which competitors steal from and kill one another, but his shortcoming is failing to be honest with himself about how his business is able to survive. Still, that willful blindness allows him to take the necessary steps to get by each day. Thus he can believe he is a good man facing persecution for the wickedness of others.

Abel worked as a driver for the Standard Heating Oil Company before he and his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) bought it from her father, who is widely recognized as a Brooklyn gangster. Over twenty years Abel has grown the business and attracted unwanted attention because of such success. District Attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo) has been investigating the company for two years and is preparing to file a fourteen-count indictment. Abel’s drivers are being attacked, and thousands of dollars of fuel is being stolen.

These problems are also making it difficult for Abel to line up an investor to help with purchasing a piece of property that will give him a major strategic advantage. With a substantial nonrefundable portion already paid, Abel is desperate to scrounge up another $1.5 million but can’t obtain it from legitimate sources. He doesn’t want to be indebted to crooked men because he envisions himself as an upstanding businessman, but with time running out and pressure mounting, he may have no other choice.

Writer-director J.C. Chandor is interested in studying how power, be it political or financial, is aligned out of sight and what the consequences of this process are for those not benefiting from it. Cinematographer Bradford Young drapes A MOST VIOLENT YEAR in low light so that the action literally takes place in and among the shadows. Abel is comfortable there, even when his back is against the wall, because the shroud is meant to protect people like him. For his drivers threatened by an unknown enemy, even going into hiding is not a safe place. They are the little guys, and they will always be the first to pay because of their low position on the hierarchy.

Hard work and good luck may factor into Abel’s achievements, but determination and effort are not the only traits responsible. Isaac does outstanding work as a compromised man who has the luxury of not knowing how much of his prosperity comes from the grease and grime he hasn’t been required to touch. He shows the depth of Abel’s conviction and righteousness while dwelling in the darkness unaware of his slow descent. Chastain’s fierce performance paints Anna as a kingmaker of sorts. Anna knows her role and carries it out with ruthless efficiency without drawing notice. Through her Chastain manifests a different kind of toughness, the type that isn’t necessarily front and center but quietly acquires dominance through proximity and savvy.

Although the drama is fraught with tension, Chandor finds room in A MOST VIOLENT YEAR for two terrific chase scenes. Both also make tangible the anxiety, terror, and anger pumping through the narrative and remove standards of fair play. To Chandor the nature of business and politics isn’t Darwinian so much as it is a guided by those setting the rules in their favor.

Grade: A-

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