Riveting ‘A Most Violent Year’ probes the high price of the American Dream

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[A Most Violent Year was ranked #5 on my Best of 2014 list]

“When it feels scary to jump, that is exactly when you jump. Otherwise you end up staying in the same place your whole life.”

After breaking out in 2011 with Margin Call, a whip-smart ensemble drama about the beginnings of the Wall Street financial crisis of 2008, writer-director J.C. Chandor went out of his way to prove his worth with the near wordless, technically dazzling survival thriller All is Lost starring Robert Redford. For his third and best film, A Most Violent Year, Chandor settles for a more traditional yet equally riveting story about a couple, played by Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain, trying to keep their business intact and afloat during the winter of 1981, statistically one of the most violent years in New York City’s history.

Richly evocative of the ’70s-era films of Sidney Lumet and William Friedkin, thanks to Selma cinematographer Bradford Young’s imaginative chiaroscuro-tinged photography, A Most Violent Year is a riveting story that examines the quest for the American Dream and how the allure of crime and corruption lurks on every corner, threatening to soil that dream. Isaac plays Abel Morales, a Latin American businessman who has inherited a heating oil company from his wife Anna’s (Chastain) father. When we first meet Abel, he’s with his lawyer (Albert Brooks) putting down his life savings on a 40 percent down payment for a riverfront property that he expects will take his business to the next level. With his excellent standing in the business community, strong moral code and character, Abel’s bankers are more than happy to finance the remaining $1.5 million payment on the property. He’s even loved by his employees and partners.

But that’s when things begin to go wrong. His oil trucks start to get robbed at gunpoint by a couple of mysterious thugs who could be working for any one of his competitors. As the attacks become progressively more violent and frequent, he finds himself under enormous pressure from his friends and associates, including his tough-as-nails wife to use force to combat the thugs. But Abel wants no part of it. He believes in taking the high road and conducting his business in an honest way. This comes to haunt him when the city’s ambitious assistant District Attorney (David Oyelowo) starts investigating their business for fraud and tax evasion. With the noose around Abel’s neck getting tighter, he’ll need to use every resource—his wit, charisma and will to succeed—to survive.

Isaac, so brilliant in the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, has slowly been building a name for himself as one of the finest young actors in Hollywood, continues his string  of excellent performances here as a man whose cool and calm demeanor conceal a brewing storm. In fact, Isaac’s restrained performance is reminiscent of a young Al Pacino in The Godfather. A scene where he teaches three young employees how to win a business by simply holding eye contact with the prospective client is riveting cinema. If Isaac qualifies as the film’s rock, then Chastain is undeniably its firecracker. As the hot-headed, ruthless Anna, the actress explodes every time she’s on-screen, chewing the scenery as the smart and tough woman attuned to having things run her way. Unlike Abel, she has no qualms about getting her hands dirty when the time calls for it. It’s a juicy part whose only drawback is that there simply isn’t enough of it.

Contrary to the film’s misleading title, A Most Violent Year isn’t an action movie or even a thriller, although it does showcase elements of both (a long and superbly shot chase in the last act is reminiscent of the famous chase sequence in The French Connection). Instead, Chandor’s film is a crisp and controlled exercise in escalating tension that, coupled with Young’s atmospheric photography and composer Alex Ebert’s Philip Glass-ian score, uses Abel’s troubling plight to draw you in. But Chandor isn’t merely interested in telling a story about crime and corruption. He uses Abel’s story as a shell to explore the obsessive quest of the American Dream, the nature of masculinity and even the allure of crime. Like Chandor’s previous two films, A Most Violent Year is a story of a man in a state of crisis who has to use every skill he’s learned to escape his predicament. And like James Grey’s The Immigrant, another 2014 film that tackled the story of immigrants in America, Chandor’s film is a stark and powerful portrait of the high price people pay to make their American Dream a reality.

A-

A MOST VIOLENT YEAR
Director: J.C. Chandor
Screenwriter: J.C. Chandor
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Albert Brooks, Alessandro Nivola
Producer: J.C. Chandor, Neal Dodson, Anna Gerb

Editor: Ron Patane
Cinematographer: Bradford Young
Music: Alex Ebert

Running time: 125 minutes
Companies: A24
Rating: R for language and some violence

Trailer:

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