Friday, 6 February 2015

A Most Violent Year

J.D. Chandor’s previous two films (Margin Call and All is Lost) both made my top ten of the year lists. A Most Violent Year (technically released on the last day of 2014 but not until 2015 in Canada, so that’s what I’m going by) is the first contender for my 2015 list. It is further proof that Chandor is one of the most exciting filmmakers out there. With a writing style that reminds me of David Mamet, Chandor has again created something wholly original that exudes intelligence (thoughtfulness) and elicits outstanding performances. This time, Chandor has chosen to give special attention to the cinematography, lending a unique atmosphere to the film. Great stuff.

Perhaps I should have started my review by noting that A Most Violent Year is a deeply sad and unsettling film. I knew from the opening scenes that this was going to be a scary and intense film to watch. I was right. Given its title, it’s surprising (positively so) how little violence there is in the film. The violence there is, however, is jarring and hits you where it hurts (as it should).

Set in New York City in the winter of 1981 (the sense of time and place is terrific), A Most Violent Year concerns the cutthroat business of selling heating oil. Yeah, despite the violence and the constant police interest, it’s not a gangster film as such (there are some gangsters) and the men involved have no desire to kill anyone (how refreshing is that!). But they do like to carry handguns and one of the strengths of A Most Violent Year is the way it draws attention to the fact that the minute you bring in guns, the threat of serious violence increases exponentially. 

Abel Morales (played by Oscar Isaac) purchased the heating oil company from his gangster father-in-law five years before and is on the verge of making it big, closing a deal with Jewish landowners that will give him an edge over all of his competitors. But just days before the deal closes, everything starts to unravel for Abel. His drivers and salespeople are being beaten up by persons unknown, the police have indicated that he is facing indictments for various crimes (also unknown) and his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) is hiding something and showing a sudden interest in guns despite having come home to their new house one day to find her young daughter playing with a loaded gun she had found in the bushes.

Morales is an honorable man (as we hear repeatedly). He doesn’t understand why the world has suddenly aligned itself against him when all he wants is to do things the right way. At one point he describes his view of life as something like: “doing things the right way is more important than accomplishing my goals”. But Morales is terrified of failure and the events of these days will repeatedly test that conviction, which is what A Most Violent Year is all about. 

Along the way, there are moments which feel too contrived, but I tend to overlook such contrivances if they are in the service of making a moral point as opposed to being part of an action scene.

Isaac, as usual, is so good that you think he is Abel Morales. Chastain is likewise perfect as Anna. Providing excellent support are Albert Brooks (haven’t seen him for a while) as Abel’s lawyer and David Oyelowo as the assistant disctrict attorney who’s on his tail.

Given what happened last year, I feel like I’m being suddenly very generous, but I am giving Chandor’s powerful and gut-wrenching suspense-drama ****. My mug is up for the first four-star entry of 2015. 

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