Truth be told ~ A Most Violent Year could come off sounding like the most boring movie ever about the most dry industry ever. Set in New York City in 1981, Oscar Isaac plays “Abel Morales“, the owner of a heating oil company in the early 80’s when people, instead of having to deal with the electric or gas company for heating, they negotiated heating oil prices with the providers directly. Odd but true. But life has been good for Morales. Being an immigrant, he’s risen through the ranks from driver to owner, married a beautiful, smart woman, “Anna” (Jessica Chastain) who has a rather wealthy & somewhat connected father herself, “Bill” (Peter Gerety) and he’s just about to close the biggest deal of his life.
But all is not well at Standard Oil. Abel is trying to negotiate a deal to expand their business and gain ground by getting “Josef” (Jerry Adler) and his devoutly Jewish, not completely on the up & up, family to agree to sell their highly-valued, much in demand property to him vs. the competition. And he has 30 days to make this happen. All the while, his company is under investigation for fraud, the bank has pulled out of their real estate deal, trucks of oil are being stolen left and right from Morales’ and to make matters worse, now his seemingly perfect home life is starting to show cracks. It’s definitely a ‘violent’ year for Morales but not in how you might imagine.
A Most Violent Year plays out like a gangster movie but not like one I’ve ever seen before as it’s done in a refreshingly understated, non-sensationalist gangster movie way as these are guys who don’t even carry guns, and are actually committed to trying to conduct their business in a non-violent manner which may or may not work out for them. This is really about as far from a Scorsese type gangster flick you can get. There’s no real flash in either the direction or the acting as everything is on a very different balance here though I will say, while it might be slow at times, it is never dull. It’s like ‘Casino’ but minus everything that makes it loud, brash or wild. What’s left is a quiet, almost pensive exploration of one man’s year long struggle to keep his business and his life on the path he’s chosen. And sure, there’s the occasional flash of violence but it rarely involves our lead character directly. In fact, the key players ~ Abel, Anna, “Lawrence” (David Oyelowo), “Walsh” (Albert Brooks) and O’Leary ~ are all locked in a power struggle that rarely resorts to violence though some of them really want to use it, Abel feels business can be conducted without it. Instead, the group handle their differences in heated discussions, occasional emotional blowouts and the always to be expected backroom deal.
When Anna emerges as not only the saviour of sorts, in a pivotal scene of shockingly good grit and Abel blows up at her, is where the film breaks some truly fascinating ground. Not only does Anna emerge as the badass gangster who’s playing the angles and saving the day, but you really start to question just how moral Abel is. It’s here that you see begin to see the layers of movie really begin to reveal themselves. In possibly one of the best on-foot chase scenes that I’ve ever seen in a movie with Morales in dress shoes no less, though the scene some might say comes a little late in the game, I couldn’t help but love every second of it.
The film cements itself together not only by excellent performances from Isaac, Chastain and the strong supporting cast, but by small things like the locations and a truly fantastic step back into this world with even a great wardrobe of the time making it all the more realistic. A Most Violent Year may not be my favourite film of the year, but it will definitely emerge as a contender during awards season.
Note: Following the film was a fantastic Q & A with Dir/Writer: J.C. Chandor, Actors: Jessica Chastain, Oscar Isaac, Producers: Neal Dodson, Anna Gerb; who really gave a wonderful detailed explanation of the idea & set, even his trenchcoat idea behind the film. Truly, if you haven’t seen a J.C. Chandor movie, you’re missing out. Like, seriously missing out. So don’t skip A Most Violent Year either, you should see it and then head back and check out the director’s previous work like the wonderfully brilliant, “All is Lost” & “Margin Call”
**Seen on Monday, November 17th at a PGA screening at the Arclight Theaters (Hollywood) ~ A Most Violent Year opens December 31, 2014.
(See grading scale)