A Most Violent Year

Rage against the tough-guy melodrama

XXX MOST VIOLENT DAY MOV JY 3625 .JPG A ENTAbel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is the opposite of Ray Liotta’s character in GoodFellas – y’know, since everyone feels the need to (erroneously) compare J.C. Chandor’s fiercely suspenseful A Most Violent Year to every macho gangster film ever made.  Abel, the head of a successful heating oil company, is dead-set against resorting to violence when his trucks are hijacked by unknown assailants, costing him thousands of dollars and legions of customers.  His competitors, naturally, deny knowledge of these attacks, and Abel is pressured on all sides to retaliate: the head of the Teamsters (Peter Gerety) wants him to arm all of his drivers with handguns; his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), whose father is a hair-trigger mobster who formerly owned the company, threatens to take matters into her own hands if Abel does not move to protect his family; and even Abel’s attorney (Albert Brooks) has a bit too much of an Al Capone vibe when discussing the company’s interests.  Abel protests: “It’s really come to this? We have to walk around outside like we’re fuckin’ gangsters?”

The film is actually more similar to Terence Winter and co.’s Boardwalk Empire than any Al Pacino vehicle, only it does Boardwalk’s ending better than Boardwalk did (read: same setup, seemingly inevitable “never saw that coming” swan song, but subverts the exhausted “stinger” ending – on another note, the film also features three Boardwalk actors).  Thus, the film feels a bit like an extended pilot for another heavy-handed serial about the danger, violence, and fallacy of the American Dream, but it ends before it becomes worn out, and it’s buffered by performances by some of today’s best working actors (Isaac, Jessica Chastain, and David Oyelowo), which despite its tissue-papery themes and symbolic imagery, keep it from being simply “good for what it is.”

Much of the narrative involves Abel’s attempts to purchase an abandoned fuel terminal on the East River, handing over a forty-percent down-payment to a group of Hasidic Jews who require Abel to close the deal in thirty days or eat the down-payment and be left with nothing.  Of course, this happens just as Julian (Elyes Gabel), a driver and close friend to Abel, is brutalized by the above thugs, later procures a handgun without Abel’s permission, and combats his attackers in a broad-daylight shootout when they try again.  The bad publicity causes Abel’s financial backers to pull out, and he’s left to come up with 1.5 million dollars on his own.  On top of that, he must deal with DA Lawrence (Oyelowo), who assumes that any moderately successful company must be riddled with corruption, and decides to invade Abel’s privacy whenever possible.

AMVY is populated with characters who pine for and attempt to recreate the days when “men were men” (English translation: when the word of a man was the only word, rich dudes traded profound threats over gambling tables, and wives were akin to property, good only to scold/bone/task with taking care of children).  Abel and Anna, though, are over that mostly-fictional fantasy time period, and the real struggle is the excruciating job of being the first to move towards progress in a world of dinosaur-ish tycoons who only discuss business from the backroom of a fancy restaurant and who say things like “You don’t want to take a loan from my kind of people.” Abel’s ordeal skates between this and his steadfast resistance to corruption, and only one of those, if either, can be completely satisfied in a story with such an inherently cynical premise (consider the film’s starkest image: the blood of an innocent person sprayed across the side of a leaking oil tank).

Isaac plays Abel, as he plays all of his near-heels, as sympathetic and genuine when anyone else would have played a villain.  Jessica Chastain’s Lady-Macbeth-like Anna, who always seems one clandestine step ahead of Abel, plays the game better than any of the faux gangsters, and her tendency towards mood-whiplash (entertaining children at a birthday party one minute, fearlessly intimidating the District Attorney while taking deliberately-timed drags from a cigarette the next) is the film’s most terrifying wildcard.  The standout performance, maybe, is that of Elyes Gabel (in part because Isaac and Chastain are reliably stunning in everything at this point) as the hard-luck Julian, who just can’t get a break.  Watching him struggle to make big decisions causes serious heartache, and one of the most effectively troubling things about the film is the later realization that his one-hundred-percent-undeserved misfortune actually contributed to the successes of the character we were made to root for, and that we’re pretty much okay with Pyrrhic victory over actual justice, when it comes down to it.

Like most of what comes out of J.C. Chandor, this is one of the most atmospheric, well-scored, and understated pieces of the year.  It is, however, worth wondering about one thing: how do the Morales’ daughters get any sleep with all that yelling?

A Most Violent Year (2014); written and directed by J.C. Chandor; starring Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Elyes Gabriel, and David Oyelowo.

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