Sunday, January 25, 2015


You look at the title "A Most Violent Year" and you get images in your head. It's understandable. But, no, "A Most Violent Year" is not just some graphically violent crime film where blood splatters everywhere. It's more ponderous, more suggestive. Wall-to-wall violence is not needed to justify the movie's title. The film's about the constant, almost never-ending threat of violence. It's about a man who's simply trying to get ahead in his business, a business that's so competitive that his trucks are under constant threat of being hijacked everyday.

Oscar Isaac plays Abel Morales, a man who owns a private oil company in New York City, 1981. At the time, 1981 was the most violent year in the city's history (a statistic, I'm sure, NYC topped during the latter part of the '80s) and the violence has seeped into the oil industry. His company, along with other rival companies, are constantly at each other's throats. And while Abel tries to seal a new real estate deal, which would mean higher profits for his company, the constant hijackings as well as the company's sketchy history threatens to jeopardize the man's business.

Abel's not running it alone. His wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), whose father used to own the company before Abel bought it from him, is very much involved in the mix and is responsible for crunching the numbers. There is an interesting dynamic at play between these two characters. Apparently, when Anna's father used to run the company, he was much more willing to bend the rules. Despite the fact that Abel's been running things for five years now, the District Attorney (David Oyelowo) has been tasked with finding corruption within the local oil industry and he's constantly breathing down Abel's neck.

So, despite Abel's insistence that he's running things as clean as possible, given the nature of the industry, the audience is naturally waiting for the other shoe to drop. But, the more we learn about Abel, the more we realize how timid and cautious he really is, and that it's his wife who is really the one that threatens to get dirty. That's where the interesting dynamic comes into play. Writer/director JC Chandor makes it a point to revisit the couple again and again throughout the film. Abel might be out running errands, trying to make sure he has enough money for his real estate deal, but at the end of the day, he has to come home and tell his wife what's going on.

Anna's not exactly the 100% supportive type either. Abel knows that if he doesn't get results, then Anna may very well attempt to do things her way. I love the way the film portrays this struggle and the way Oscar Isaac always manage to keep his composure and his control, at least for most of the running time.

Abel wants to do things the "right" way, but he eventually comes to realize that he can only really succeed by doing things the "most right" way. Whether or not he actually does come out on top in the film, he won't be able to avoid getting blood on his hands along the way.

Isaac is excellent in the film; Chastain, of course, is a pleasure to watch like always. The film's rounded out by strong supporting performances from Albert Brooks and David Oyelowo (what a year he's having!). As for JC Chandor, this is his third film and it really seems he's taken a serious creative leap once again. "A Most Violent Year" doesn't end without hitting a few bumps along the way, but this is a mature adult drama that knows how to build tension and mostly delivers when that tension is finally released.

I was complementary, earlier, about the scenes between Abel and Anna and while those scenes are interesting watch by themselves, there were times when it felt like these scenes sometimes took away from the central action that's taking place. In other words, the movie just felt a little too constructed and, after awhile, you could sense a pattern forming which took away from the overall suspense in the film.

And while you know Anna and Abel are eventually going to go to verbal fisticuffs at some point, I wish there was a little more show and less tell along the way. After you see the movie, or if you've seen the movie, you'll probably know what I'm talking about. There's a moment where Anna finally reveals her true colors to Abel, but instead of it being shocking or revelatory, it came off a little too frivolous.

Yes, "A Most Violent Year" just might be one or two spoonfuls away from being a truly great film, but you can't complain too much about the overall result. Again, we just don't see good adult dramas these days with two actors that are very much at their peak right now. Perhaps it could've use a little more bite, but I still found "A Most Violent Year" to be a richly rewarding experience.

Grade: B+

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