By Linc Leifeste | January 24, 2015
Director: J.C. Chandor
Writer: J.C. Chandor
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola, Albert Brooks, Elyes Gabel, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Peter Gerety
For the life of me, after seeing a trailer or two, I was convinced that A Most Violent Year was a gangster film. And after having seen the film for the first time, even though the facts didn’t support the conclusion, I was still mostly convinced it was a gangster film. After all, in its look and feel, it walks and talks much like a combination of Martin Scorsese and Al Pacino. It was only after a second viewing that I was able to feel comfortable in accepting that no, indeed, this is not a gangster film.
Set in the long gone New York City of 1981, a tough city covered in grime and graffiti where every time you get in a car the radio is blaring news of another shooting or stabbing (a most violent year, indeed), this is the story of Abel Morales (Oscar Issac) and his attempt to steer his up and coming company, Standard Heating Oil, through a cutthroat business climate, without himself resorting to cutting throats. Yes, Isaac may look and sound a bit like Al “Godfather” Pacino, he may wear expensive clothes and drive a nice car, he may be prone to meetings in smoke-filled rooms where he speaks little but with clarity and conviction that indicates danger, and he may be incredibly ambitious and power hungry, but to the criminal element he doesn’t belong. His wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), on the other hand, who keeps the company’s books, is a Jersey mobster’s brassy daughter with a penchant for handguns and issuing threats.
A slow, slow burn of a film, feeling for all the world like a late 1970’s American cinema gem, the films opens jumping back and forth between two events: Abel signing on the dotted line, committing to buy a new property that will be huge for his business, and one of the young drivers (Elyes Gabel) of his small oil truck fleet, having his truck stolen at gunpoint after being pistol whipped. Both events serve to drive the narrative of the film. The building deal stipulates that he put forty percent down and is responsible for delivering the balance within thirty days or he loses his money and rights to the property, which would leave him financially ruined. And the theft of his truck isn’t a solitary incident but is indicative of the climate of both 1981 New York and the industry that Abel is competing in. The local Teamster boss (Peter Gerety) is furious that his drivers are being endangered and is threatening to arm them. And in the meantime the District Attorney’s office is investigating Morales’ finances and business practices.
Abel is man of ambition, with an iron will and a strong work ethic who is quickly moving up the ladder of success but he now finds himself one misstep away from disaster. And the misstep doesn’t even have to be his own. Will his drivers take matters into their own hands and resort to violence? Will his wife turn to her mobster father for assistance? Much like director J.C. Chandor’s last film, All Is Lost, this is the story of one man’s attempt to navigate through perilous waters against great odds. Isaac’s performance is one of my very favorites of 2014 and his time of being one of our most criminally underrated actors is surely coming to an end soon. Sadly, this probably won’t be the film to make that happen, mostly because of its slow pace, but also because the palpable tension that is built throughout the film is never released through a cataclysmic moment of cathartic violence. For many viewers, this film will probably feel like watching a long fuse slowly burn towards a stick of dynamite that never explodes. But what a sizzle,crackle and glow the fuse has! I could watch it burn for twice as long.
In closing, I’d be remiss in my duties if I didn’t say a word or two about the work of cinematographer Bradford Young (Selma, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints). I feel confident in saying that you will not see a more strikingly framed and shot film from 2014 than A Most Violent Year. The camera work is simply stunning, from the placement to the framing to the movement, adding whole layers of beauty, intensity and atmosphere to Chandor’s masterful storytelling.