A Most Violent Year (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
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A Most Violent Year (2014)

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New York, 1981, oil businesses are engaging in off-the-books turf war and profit shoring to secure dominance in the city.  Abel Morales, a decent man, runs Standard Oil.  After a string of robberies hit his trucks he starts to question what he will need to do to stay competitive in this city.  J.C. Chandor writes and directs A Most Violent Year, starring Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, and David Oyelowo.

Going into the nightA Most Violent Year plays as a riff on the much-maligned third installment of The Godfather trilogy. We have a man who is struggling to make a legitimate business function without use of the mafia connections alluded to at several points in the story. Many of these business deals take place in an amber shadow where men of power gather to determine how oil prices should rise and fall. The only bits of brightness come from a detective who wants to lower the corruption in the city, and during Abel’s (Oscar Isaac) morning run through the decaying sections of New York City.

There are many of these runs during A Most Violent Year, and something occurred to me during the third or so of these scenes. The American economic crash of 2008 has made its presence felt in cinema through many variations of this same scene. A well-meaning but flawed person has to engage in dark practices to secure an idyllic class existence against a failing economy. See how the protagonist of Blue Ruin adopts a disguise of suburban normality to kill the people who destroyed his stability, or the weary hero of The Courier works his way through wrecked New Orleans amusement parks – one of those durable symbols of excess and fantasy.

David Oyelowo, in the same year as Selma, delivers a different and intriguing performance.

David Oyelowo, in the same year as Selma, delivers a different and intriguing performance.

They’ve been effective before, A Most Violent Year became the moment where I realized that this “decent man amidst economic decay” has become a trope for both screenplays and cinematography in recent years. It was because of this, and many other reasons, that I remained curious about A Most Violent Year but never enthralled by it. I’ve seen this hero before, and in conditions so similar to other films there could have been behind the scenes collaborations and I would not have been surprised.

My main issue with A Most Violent Year is how it centers on the least interesting character of the bunch. Abel, as I said, is just another decent man trying to do legitimate work in a business which practically requires a ruthless touch to succeed. He’s such an optimistic guy that he’s practically naïve of the measures he needs to take. Isaac, always a great actor, does a good job conveying Abel’s struggle to stay decent amidst the darkness, but Abel just isn’t compelling. I talked a few days ago about how Vincent, of St. Vincent, doesn’t change as a character but our perception of him does. Even Abel’s one moment of aggression comes from an accident followed by forgiveness. My perception of Abel ends as it starts, and Abel remains the same struggling if decent man at the beginning as he does at the end.

What gives A Most Violent Year its punch isn’t Abel’s story, but the bits of intrigue we glean from the supporting characters. Jessica Chastain, who plays Abel’s wife Anna, earns my vote for who the screenplay should have been restructured around. She’s clearly a confident person and when the threats come home she worries about her family but she doesn’t fret, doesn’t lose her cool, and instead goes and gets a gun herself. The old cliché of the worried wife is turned completely on its head, and Anna begins encouraging her concerned husband to meet violence with violence. As more details come out about Anna’s past, Chastain moves from confident to ferocious. By the time she meets Assistant District Attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo) and threatens to destroy him if he goes after Abel I was convinced we were following the wrong person. Anna’s moves in the shadows, and how she keeps this power secret in this world of men, is far more interesting to me than Abel’s moral dilemma.

Even A.D.A. Lawrence has a great subplot. I got to see this after Selma and seeing Oyelowo so resigned and weary after his fired-up performance as Martin Luther King was a revelation.   It’s clear the A.D.A. is after Abel because he’s the lowest hanging fruit, and Oyelowo’s far-away look in his scenes with Abel make it clear. But in another late film revelation we find the A.D.A. has his code of ethics, but also his own aspirations, and he and Abel may help one another. Again, this just had me curious about the background meetings, the talks he must have had with his supervisors and other associates which led him to those aspirations and this opportunity with Abel.

A Most Violent Year is one Jessica Chastain-centered rewrite away from excellence.

A Most Violent Year is one Jessica Chastain-centered rewrite away from excellence.

So while the periphery of A Most Violent Year is more engaging than the body, it remains a consistently gorgeous film thanks to cinematographer Bradford Young. He gave Selma its powerful pulpit battles in between unseen bodies gradually revealed by the camera, and he made Pariah a colorful and luscious expression of confused teenage attraction. Here the spirit of The Godfather is strong, more in influence than direct quotation. The amber haze and shadows certainly recall the closed-door meetings of The Godfather, but the beautiful splash of blood and oil, the weary Abel watching his decaying town from a boat at dawn, and dusty meetings in living rooms are all his. All of this goes to show how clueless Abel really is about the business, concluding in an amazing sequence where Abel confronts his wife and he cloaks in shadow while she bathes in light. She knows what the business requires of her, and is able to do it - he's still deluding himself in the dark.

A Most Violent Year is not a bad film, and the side-stories are so good I wish we could get spinoff films to see how Anna and A.D.A. Lawrence got to this point. But after so many films of watching decent men struggle for class status against decaying buildings I’ve grown tired of the idea. I have no doubt another great movie à la Blue Ruin can be made from the premise, but it wasn’t A Most Violent Year.

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Tail - A Most Violent YearA Most Violent Year (2014)

Screenplay written and directed by J.C. Chandor.
Starring Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, and David Oyelowo.

Posted by Andrew

Comments (3) Trackbacks (0)
  1. It’s an interesting thriller that isn’t afraid to ask the hard questions, and give us even harder answers. Good review Andrew.

    • Exactly! There’s so many interesting questions and answers (that blood and oil splash at the end was great) that they’re filtered through exactly the wrong person. Thanks for commenting Dan.

  2. ‘I want a nice, honest and romantic guy’ but in the real life all the girls are attracted by that violent movie. This is totally funny!

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