The Movie Waffler New Release Review - <i>A Most Violent Year</i> | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - A Most Violent Year

An immigrant struggles to keep his heating oil business afloat without resorting to illegal means.

Directed by: JC Chandor

Starring: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola, Albert Brooks

Ending the year with a JC Chandor movie is becoming something of an annual tradition. While the masses have flocked to The Hobbit series, those seeking more adult drama have found their whims sated by the films of Chandor, a prolific yet still fresh filmmaker who has now given us three feature films in as many years, all three significantly different in tone, but all sharing a theme of the struggle to keep your head above water, literally in the case of last year's dialogue free shipwreck drama All is Lost.
Unlike many raw filmmakers, whose early works are too often blighted by a need to expel a film school flashiness out of their systems, Chandor seems to have arrived on the scene fully formed and mature. A Most Violent Year is his most accomplished piece yet, exuding a quiet confidence that's all too rare in modern American cinema.
Set in 1981, New York's most dangerous year of the modern era, the film follows an ambitious immigrant, Abel Morales (Isaac), as he chases the American dream, equal parts hindered and aided by his waspy American wife Anna (Chastain), the daughter of a gangster who inherited some of her father's worst business traits. In order to significantly expand his heating oil business, Abel is on the verge of inking a deal to purchase a storage facility overlooking the island of Manhattan, a strip of land that serves as Abel's dreams made concrete.
There are those who don't want Abel to live his dream, however, with his fleet of trucks constantly being hijacked by a pair of gun-wielding thugs. This leads to a Ten Little Indians inspired subplot, as Abel investigates his various rivals, all of whom have enough motive to scupper his business. Also on Abel's case is an ambitious police investigator (Oyelowo), determined to uncover corruption in the heating oil game, and a union boss who wants Abel's drivers to carry guns, an idea Abel is dead set against.
A Most Violent Year's title and marketing could easily fool you into believing this were another rote gangster drama, but Chandor has fashioned a uniquely anti-gangster movie. His protagonist is determined to stay on the straight and narrow, even when it seems the only way to achieve his goal is to cut some ethical and legal corners. He's been running his business above board, but it's his wife and business partner Anna who is determined to emasculate him by cooking the books behind his back. When a burglar leaves behind a pistol, it's Anna who uses it to put a wounded deer out of its misery when Abel is unable to bring himself to end the animal's life, having clipped it with his car. The icy Chastain is ideally cast in a role that evokes the equally chilly mob wife played by Helen Mirren in The Long Good Friday
Isaac's performance is as subtly effective as the work of his director. This is a movie in which tempers are often frayed, but voices are rarely raised, requiring an actor who can project with his eyes rather than his larynx (A latino actor playing a latino protagonist, Scarface this ain't; stereotypes are thankfully absent). Chandor cleverly stages a domestic argument late at night, with Chastain and Isaac whispering their mutual discontent so as to not wake their kids. The effect is a lot more discomforting than a plate breaking shouting match, adding a level of uncomfortable voyeurism.
A Most Violent Year commendably never draws attention to its period setting, unlike American Hustle, a movie determined to nudge us in the ribs until we notice its elaborate costumes, wigs and soundtracks. A Most Violent Year doesn't look like a movie set in 1981 - it looks like a movie made in 1981. There are no hits of the day on the soundtrack, no deals brokered in discotheques, and the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center are glimpsed only as blurry, distant monoliths in the background. It's the half-demolished buildings, the graffiti-strewn subway cars and the lack of showy camera work that convincingly evoke the era. A thrilling chase sequence is the highlight of the film, and plays out like a set-piece from some lost William Friedkin classic. In one of the most effective shots of the year, Chandor reveals the aftermath of an incident in a manner that proves far more impactful than portraying the event itself.
Typically restless, Chandor is already working on his next movie, a drama set against the backdrop of the 2010 BP oil spill. At this point in their careers, most directors would still be finding their feet, but three films in, Chandor has already established himself as one of American cinema's most interesting voices. Commendably, it's a voice he never feels the need to raise.