A Most Violent Year

Jessica Chastain sulks because Oscar Isaac just got the first installment of his Star Wars salary.

Jessica Chastain sulks because Oscar Isaac just got the first installment of his Star Wars salary.

(2014) Drama (A24) Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola, Albert Brooks, Elyes Gabel, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Peter Gerety, Christopher Abbott, Ashley Williams, John Procaccino, Glenn Fleshler, Jerry Adler, Annie Funke, Matthew Maher, David Margulies, Pico Alexander, Susan Blackwell, Myrna Cabello, Elizabeth Marvel. Directed by J.C. Chandor

Doing the right thing is often an act of will. In places and times where all those around you are taking the easy path – which is generally not the right thing – it becomes difficult to tread the straight and narrow. Despite your very best intentions, often the tendency is to lose your way.

Abel Morales (Isaac) is a man who keeps tight rein on his emotions. He has just signed a deal with a bearded Orthodox patriarch (Adler) for a parcel of land that will make give his heating oil business a river port that will enable him to receive and store an enormous amount of oil, giving him a huge leg up on the competition. He just has 30 days after having made the down payment to provide the remainder of the payment, roughly around $1.5 million. He figures he has got no worries. His lawyer, Andrew Walsh (Brooks), a canny lawyer used to working with the mob, seems to agree.

His wife Anna (Chastain) is not so sure. For weeks now their trucks have been getting hijacked, the contents stolen. While each truck carries only about $6,000 in oil, it has the union boss (Gerety) worried enough that he wants to arm the drivers and give them forged permits to carry. Abel finds this disturbing but the union can tell his drivers to walk away, and that would absolutely be a catastrophe.

To make matters worse, his business – his entire industry in fact – is being investigated by FBI Agent Lawrence (Oyelowo) and they’re handing down an indictment which suddenly makes the bank that Abel has been doing business with all his life turn tail and pull out of the loan they were about to give him for the remainder of the payment for the land. Now Abel is scrambling with days left in the deadline and the violence escalating when one of his drivers (Gabel), having been hospitalized in a hijacking, now carrying a gun against his boss’s wishes and without his knowledge, as he drives.

Watching this carried sharp reminders of 70s cinematic gems like Serpico, The Godfather, The French Connection and their ilk. The palate of the cinematic colors are definitely autumn and winter in tone, with a lot of rich dark browns, olive, ochre and mustard among the colors that are displayed. The movie is lit as if all the action takes place in the late afternoon, with the sun straining to reach inside through Venetian blinds.

The tone of the action is dark as well. Abel, the film’s moral center, is beset on all sides by people urging him to take short cuts, essentially because everyone else is doing it and the only way to get ahead in this place and this time (1981 New York City, a year that to that point had been the most violent on record in terms of the number of violent crimes) is to do the same. Isaac imbues Abel with a certain amount of gravitas, his leonine looks reminding me of Al Pacino in a lot of ways. But whereas Pacino’s character was eventually corrupted in Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece, here Isaac’s Morales more or less remains on point.

Chastain’s Anna is less sanguine. The daughter of a mobster, she is all Brooklyn sass and pepper, nagging her husband to be stronger; in many ways, she has much more steel in her backbone than he does. However like most of those around Abel, her moral compass is compromised, pointing at self-interest much more directly than the right thing to do.

Brooks, who impressed as a villain in Drive last year, continues to take on fascinating characters as he reinvents himself from a sad-sack romantic comedy lead. He imbues the lawyer with a subtle menace even while he shows loyalty to Abel throughout. He doesn’t always agree with Abel but he supports him mainly because he’s paid to; one wonders if he will turn on him throughout and that’s the genius of Brooks’ portrayal. Oyelowo, so brilliant in Selma isn’t quite as scintillating here but gives the conflicted Agent Lawrence that sense of being politically motivated but quite sure the guy he’s investigating is likely innocent.

Chandor, who has the powerful All is Lost from last year as well as the Wall Street thriller Margin Call to his credit, excels at creating tension in ordinary situations. I was reminded somewhat of The Sopranos in a sense but the mob in this case is outside of the frame, not really involved at all – although Agent Lawrence thinks they are. Abel is a man trying to keep his integrity as best he can in a time and environment when it isn’t prudent to do so. Nonetheless he has visions of success in his industry without compromising his morals, something which is difficult to do in any business. Something tells me that successful, capable men who refuse to give in to the temptation of the short cut are more prevalent in the real world than it would seem, but it’s the ones who give in who tend to be the ones who call the tune the rest of Wall Street and capitalism in general dance to.

REASONS TO GO: Powerful performances throughout the cast. Nice homage to cinema of the period.
REASONS TO STAY: Dimly lit and darkly hued.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of strong language and some occasional violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Isaac and Chastain were classmates at Julliard School of the Dramatic Arts. When Javier Bardem dropped out of the project, Chastain wrote Chandor a 3-page letter recommending her former classmate for the role. Chandor was already considering him for the part when he received the letter.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/3/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 79/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lord of War
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: blackhat

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