Mark Reviews Movies

A Most Violent Year


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: J.C. Chandor

Cast: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Albert Brooks, Alessandro Nivola, Elyes Gabel, Glenn Fleshler, Catalina Sandino Moreno

MPAA Rating: R (for language and some violence)

Running Time: 2:05

Release Date: 12/31/14 (limited); 1/16/15 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | January 15, 2015

It's safe to assume that the majority of people do not enter into an enterprise with the expectation or for the purpose of becoming corrupt. There are good and maybe even noble reasons people in fields that we usually connect with corruption go into that line of work. The politician wants to improve society. The businessman wants to provide a product to consumers and make money. More than ideals, though, human beings are products of circumstance. An unfortunate event, a bad piece of advice from a trusted friend or colleague, or an illegal, immoral, or unethical act from a person to whom one is connected can put us in a situation in which we act in ways that go against those ideals. It is the only rational thing to do. A Most Violent Year suggests that corruption comes out of necessity.

The film tells the story of a decent person, a smart and ethical entrepreneur, and devoted family man. He is Abel Morales (a calm, cool, and collected Oscar Isaac, in a performance that suggests a man who has studied for years how to keep an understated and nonchalant manner in even the most difficult of situations), who runs a heating oil company in New York City in 1981—the most violent year in the city until that point. He bought the company from his father-in-law, a man who did not possess the professional and personal scruples of our protagonist. In fact, everyone alludes to the fact that the father-in-law's a criminal.

Whether that was proven in a court of law or is just the rumor going around town isn't too important. Once a person is pegged that way, it sticks. Also, we know it's true, because Abel wants nothing to do with his wife's side of the family, and Abel, as we also know, is the kind of upstanding man who doesn't want to become entangled in crime.

There's a sticking point to that, though, isn't there? Abel didn't just buy the company where he was once employed as a driver. He also married the former owner's daughter Anna (Jessica Chastain, playing an everyday femme fatale with relish). For a man who doesn't want to get involved with the criminal element, he certainly has a funny way of showing it. He frees the business from its more-than-likely shadier side but throws himself into the world he says he's trying to avoid. It's taking one step forward toward legitimate business practices and five steps sideways toward crime. He's family, and that decision says something about him, whether he likes it or not.

Abel is far from naïve. It takes a cunning man to go from a driver to owning the company in a matter of years, take a company that's in a crowded market out of the red, and become such a threat to his competitors that people are hijacking the company's trucks to steal the oil inside them. He must know that Anna has learned a thing or two from her father, that his attorney (Albert Brooks) can't exactly be on the up-and-up, and that the pile of boxes stashed in his house probably don't contain exact duplicates of the files that are sitting in the company's office.

The strength of director J.C. Chandor's screenplay is that it doesn't spell out any of these doubts about Abel. It expects that we'll piece the details together—that we will trust the man genuinely wants to run his business and make it thrive by holding to "industry standards and practices" while we will still wonder why he keeps one foot hesitantly hovering over a pool of corruption. Maybe it's a test to see if he can truly live up to his ideals, or maybe it's just a safety net that he can deny at any moment.

The plot involves Abel's deal to purchase a storage facility that will cement his reign as the king of heating oil in the area. He puts down a deposit and has the rest of the money lined up with a loan from a bank.

The hijacking of his trucks brings him to the district attorney (David Oyelowo), who informs Abel that his office is ready bring multiple charges against his company. Piece by piece, the deal starts to fall apart, forcing Abel to find alternative ways to get the money while trying to stop the bleeding from the thefts and a string of bad decisions from people he thought he could trust.

The threat of violence hovers over the entirety of the film, but one could count with a single hand the number of times the threat comes to anything—an opening hijacking, a failed burglary or a successful threat, dealing with a deer that Abel has hit with his car, a shootout on an expressway juxtaposed with a kidnapping, and a final act in which one character appears to be willing another to self-destruct. The feeling that violence could erupt at any moment is real, though, and it lends an air of menace to the most mundane of discussions—about expanding markets, about loans and reneged contracts, and about what Abel wants and why he wants it. He doesn't understand the second question, because his desire for success is a given for him. It's embedded in his very being.

That is his strongest quality, but it also could be his downfall. More than anything else, Abel needs success, and Chandor's screenplay for A Most Violent Year picks away at the legitimate means for him to achieve it. The film's process of deconstructing Abel's dilemma and his character is gradual, unforced, and, by the end, quietly unnerving. To say he falls from grace would be dishonest. He does what he has always done: He makes the necessary and rational choices.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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