“A Most Violent Year” — a film review by Gary Chew
J.C. Chandor, the talented screenwriter and director who did the terrific 2011 film Margin Call, has another movie out. A Most Violent Year, like Margin Call, is set in New York City, albeit earlier than the financial crisis of 2007-08. Chandor’s new picture is also about business … but at a lower altitude than the stratospheric greed of high finance.
Oscar Issac and Jessica Chastain take the leads in Year, playing a married couple with young children. The Morales family has made big profits selling fuel oil around New York and New Jersey. Immigrant Abel Morales (Issac) has worked his way up the tough ladder of trucking and marketing fuel oil in the big city and now is the top guy for the concern; and he’s expanding.
Abel puts down a large amount of his own money to purchase a venue on the water with a view across it to the Manhattan skyline. It’s a perfect place into which he can ship oil he’s bought from anywhere in the world. With this piece of land, profits for Morales will skyrocket. Abel has thirty days to get the rest of the asking price to close the deal and not lose the hefty down payment.
Anna Morales (Chastain) is the attractive wife and smart numbers cruncher for their successful firm. She hails from a local family that could have had earlier connections with the Don Corleone Family … if Francis Ford Coppola had made this film.
As in the Godfather movies, competition is stiff. Morales’ trucks are being hijacked off throughways by thugs who seriously injure Abel’s drivers in the process. He doesn’t know who’s responsible for the attacks, but suspects the culprit calling the shots in the thievery of his fuel oil lurks among several competitors. It appears whoever the person is wants to cripple Abel’s acquisition of the property that would allow him a strong market advantage. The premise of the film isn’t so sexy, but the tension in the narrative is persistent.
The subtext has Abel and Anna at odds on how to run their business. Although the company falls well short of being strictly on the up and up, Abel wants to hold his head high — even if some denial plays a part — and try to do the right thing; Anna, not so much. A particularly interesting scene reveals that tension between them when, while driving on a road at night, their car accidentally strikes a deer.
A Most Violent Year, to the contrary, is not as violent as the title suggests. But the conflict between Abel and Anna and that which they confront with others in the business makes for a taut story well written. Curiously, the script chronicles well what people in certain businesses likely contend with more often than not.
Isaac and Chastain are letter perfect in their performances: he a little “Pacino-ish,” but quite a bit more unflappable playing his character. This guy is an excellent actor. Chastain, a budding and busy actor if there ever was once, could cut any mob gal role in any movie. She’s got just the right amount of New York-New Jersey in her speech. What makes her accent so real is that she doesn’t lay it on thick … just does it subtly.
Two other good turns are given by Albert Brooks as Abel’s attorney and David Oyelowo — seen in the recent Interstellar as well as The Help and The Last King of Scotland — appears as the cop wearing plainclothes in A Most Violent Year.
Isaac shines as bright in this latest role as he did in 2013 doing the lead in the Coen brother’s Inside Llewyn Davis, but it’s a much different brightness.