Movie Review: A Most Violent Year (2014)

A-Most-Violent-Year-movie (1)An eternal dualistic question towards the essence of human nature could be stated as, “Is it man who corrupts society or is it society that corrupts man?” The latter concept was part of Rousseau’s romantic fallacy that society corrupts man’s original content state, which is an erroneous and flattering viewpoint of potential godly enlightenment when man in actuality is ignoble in nature and building any institution on the foundation that man isn’t anything but selfish, brutal, and subjective is doomed to failure. Therein lies the eternal battle between good intentioned socialism and what is viewed as dog eat dog capitalism, an intriguing division where collective living battles individualistic incentive and if history has taught us anything it’s that incentive always wins out in the human nature struggle. Developing modern auteur J.C. Chandor has chosen for his third feature A Most Violent Year an early 80s landscape that reflects on the inevitability of capitalism in a way that blends an unflattering realism towards the systems blemishes with an exceptionally respectful view towards its ability to guide the flaws of man into what could be considered the betterment of their situation. As the son of a Merrill Lynch executive it’s unsurprising that wealth, adaptability, and resilience is so engrained in his personal philosophy, all themes that he’s already explored in his Wall Street conference-room drama Margin Call and his survivalist man versus the sea allegory All is Lost. With A Most Violent Year he continues this calculating view of business as survival and though his plethora of metaphors, allusions, and allegories become slightly heavy handed towards its conclusion there’s plenty of refreshing earnestness to be found in this director who through his deeply thoughtful reflections on America itself is pining to replace the missing cinematic voice of Sidney Lumet. J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year puts in its aim an American system that is widely debated and through its depiction of chicanery, corruption, and collusion as necessary evils he provides an astute observation that no enterprise is free from sin and that positive ends can be made justified through deceptive means. It’s all potent material for a familial period drama about the necessity of economic survival allowing Chandor to prove that large concepts aren’t off the table in creating adult dramas for the theater and we should be increasingly thankful for it.

Though the title A Most Violent Year might suggest an exceptionally violent period gangster film that resembles perhaps an amalgamation of Scorsese, De Palma, or Coppola, it’s instead an understated look into the politics, economics, and details of the heating-oil business in 1981 New York City, the year after what was considered the most violent year the Big Apple experienced. That might not sound enthralling on its face, but Chandor’s writing of both character and drama is exceptionally layered, intellectually astute, and naturally dense allowing for unusual worlds to become understood and familiar much like he did with Wall Street in Margin Call and ocean sailing in All is Lost. At the center of Chandor’s economic fable of survival is Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) who is a smooth, confident owner of an independent heating-oil distribution company wanting to establish dominance in the region by procuring a piece of land near the East River. Abel as our protagonist is our symbol for the system itself because he’s a principled man having worked his way from the bottom to the top now yearning for the ultimate American Dream wanting to do it in the most legal way at his disposal. He pens a 30-day deal to pay the remaining balance of his East River deposit with some Hasidic businessmen and that’s when all the drama begins to threaten Abel’s promise to achieve his dream, including an unknown rival high jacking his shipment trucks, a nosey district attorney (David Oyelowo) building a case against his supposedly corrupt enterprise, and his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) pressures him at home to involve her gangster family into what he deems his clean business. Of course cleanliness is next to godliness and Abel is no god but simply a man, a man struggling to keep his business alive in the unholy trinity of politicians, gangsters, and unions attempting to forge a path to the American Promised Land without compromising his character. The film’s Reagan-era setting, especially a subtle hint towards 80s deregulation and lowered taxation, invokes the sense that economic booms and busts, or the constant churning and crushing of the economy, affects the poor and rich alike and that a looming boom means taking advantage of it. Chandor’s script might not endorse the motivations of this entrepreneurial spirit and compromise, but he certainly has a thoughtful respect for it enough to make his leading protagonist an idealistic businessman striving to remain principled in a system that seems to demand ethical concession.

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In a visual sense there are no similarities between Chandor’s three features because he isn’t an auteur of style but rather an auteur of ideas, specifically the potent themes of survival whether it’s the laudatory and forgiving look into the financial sector’s adaptability in Margin Call or the literal survival (or for the more poetic questionable survival) of a wealthy man lost at sea in All is Lost. With A Most Violent Year, however, his film finally takes a stylishly metaphorical visual approach to his material where cinematographer Bradford Young’s (Selma, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) somber tones highlight the suburban conformity and callous industrial production designs from John P. Goldsmith all of which invokes a time period’s mood rather than its known place. It’s all utilized to carefully peel the layers of Chandor’s script and characters to a fully felt entity as the darkened lighting, synth focused score from Alex Ebert, and carefully paced editing from Ron Patane creates an atmospheric experience that recalls the films of Hollywood’s heyday. Of course not everything is carefully paced as moments of unexpected violence interrupt the slow-burn atmosphere, especially a riveting chase sequence of a speeding shipping truck through some exceptionally darkened tunnels. Everything is carefully executed under Chandor’s direction where the deliberate pacing, the intensely shadowed visuals, and the unquestionable feel of his production are serviced to reflect on the larger concepts of his film relating to Abel’s struggle of principle as his ethical path gets grimmer, darker, and more hopeless as he moves along. That isn’t to say that everything works in a subtle poeticism or as economic allegory because the themes become a tad overstated during its overstated conclusion of winners and losers shown through the bloodstained canvas of a leaking oil tank. There are some contradictory sentiments near the end, especially in regards to Abel’s journey that was mostly heeded through ethical means and a principled American Dream incentive leaving us to believe that Chandor himself is conflicted with the means which wealth can be accrued and the inevitability of the system’s existence. All in all, A Most Violent Year brings Chandor’s visual game to the forefront of his already provocative and intensely detailed dramatic writing establishing him as an auteur that doesn’t merely make movies for its practice but makes them for an intended purpose.

Whether it’s working with an array of highly talented thespians as he did in Margin Call or with one, lone actor bringing out an exceptionally distilled performance as he did with Robert Redford in All is Lost, Chandor knows actors and especially knows how to use their talents in service of an overall concept. In A Most Violent Year it was essential that everything complimented the chosen mood, or rather the atmospheric existence of the early 80s as a state of mind, an era of risk and misfortune, and a thoughtful reflection on the pros and cons of the entrepreneurial incentive. As the principled yet competitively primal Abel, Oscar Isaac seems to have become a modern dramatist chameleon as he disappears in his roles from the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis to Nicholas Wending Refn’s Drive. Isaac balances the passive nature of Abel and the resilient spirit that lives underneath with a careful and simmering intensity that showcases self-control even in the face of emotionally debilitating and morally questioning circumstances. Countering Abel’s seemingly passive nature is Jessica Chastain as the ferociously driven wife Anna who seems to have walked into Chandor’s film from a neighboring Scorsese picture. Her version of the almost typical mobster Lady Macbeth isn’t overdone as she portrays intellectual toughness through loving pragmatism, stealing scenes whenever she’s there and thoroughly missed when she isn’t. This exceptional relationship is as downplayed as any aspect of Chandor’s films which seems like a dramatic missed opportunity for the potential lasting chemistry and intriguing aspects between both Abel and Anna. Other characters come in and out of the dramatic foray with careful consideration as the always phenomenal Albert Brooks provides some needed wisdom and comedic relief while the presence of British actor David Oyelowo creates a needed counterbalance of personality as the overseeing antagonist towards Abel’s appropriation of the American Dream. Mostly the film focuses on the division within Abel’s household as his principled ethics combat with Anna’s crutch of underworld connections hinting that even the most ethical of businesses lay on the foundation of dirty money.

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Dirty or not, there seems to be a necessity to the established system of capitalism where the flaws of human nature are finely directed to the betterment of your situation and subsequently the betterment of others. As contested as this point may inevitably be there’s no denying that this flawed economic system has changed the world where even the poorest of us have better access to technologies, services, and devices that even Kings, Dictators, and leaders of only a century ago didn’t have access to. This is the tumultuous reality that Chandor is contemplating throughout A Most Violent Year on how he doesn’t approve of the motivations, the deceptive justifications, or the means to which many entrepreneurs obtain their wealth, but the survivability of the system and the opportunities it provides for people willing to venture it, such as immigrants working their way from bottom to the top like Abel, is a positive feature of its existence. The hesitancy of embracing this system is evident in the darkly atmospheric and slow beating pulse of Chandor’s third feature A Most Violent Year but Abel becomes a respectable hero by the end of this economic dramatic venture, a figure of respect as seen through his confidantes and business rivals that is also met with wariness. Chandor’s vision is that of respect and wariness and seeing that executed with dramatic certainty and stylish metaphor on the level of deceased filmmaker Sidney Lumet is something to admire and definitely someone to look out for on every film he attempts to make.

Grade: B+

This film will be in limited released Dec. 31st; Wide release Jan. 23rd

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