Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Writer-director J.C. Chandor's previous films Margin Call and All Is Lost are both good, solid movies, but A Most Violent Year is surely his best picture yet. It can be difficult to watch, not because it is violent (which it really is not) but because the dread that hangs over it is our own everyday fear of losing what we have -- our livelihoods, our homes, our family. It's stars Jessica Chastain is in her fourth year of being the most in-demand actress in Hollywood. The more things she appears in the more we want to see her. Oscar Isaac has been around awhile but made a major splash in Inside Llewyn Davis. The two of them are excellent in a harrowing story about rich but hardworking people in a tough business, who have to fight to keep what they've got.
Like last year's Nightcrawler, Chandor's film doesn't paint a pretty picture of the way independent entrepreneurship works in America. Although nowhere near as dark A Most Violent Year lives up to the apprehension in its title. I hope these films represent the beginning of a new micro-trend in intelligent social criticism, a reach-back to a trend of subversive-themed movies from the late '40s and early '50s.
In the first scene we notice that the World Trade Center Towers are standing tall and intact. It is 1981. Upstanding businessman Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) owns Standard Heating Oil, a sales and truck delivery service in New Jersey. Accompanied by his wife / business partner Anna (Jessica Chastain) and his lawyer Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks in a serious role), Abel puts down a non-refundable half-million dollar deposit on the perfect property for a fuel depot. It is ideally located right on the water, where ships can offload oil into his large holding tanks. The balance owed of a million dollars more needs to be paid in just five days. Anna has just moved the kids into their new home when Standard is hit by a plague of setbacks. Armed hijackers begin taking Abel's trucks and stealing the fuel. Standard driver young Julian (Elyes Gabel) is badly beaten and sent to the hospital. The police offer no help. The local Teamster head demands that Standard's drivers be armed, a step that Abel refuses to take: if anybody were shot, the law could shut him down. Abel goes to see District Attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo) about the non-existent police protection, and instead is told that in just a few days the city will be bringing indictments against his company for financial fraud. More trucks are taken and Abel's family is threatened. It becomes obvious to Abel that one of his industry competitors is trying to do-in Standard Heating Oil. But he has no information. His friends and associates deny any involvement. Then a violent incident during a hijacking kicks everything up several notches. Exactly what Anna and Abel fear occurs: the bank withdraws its backing. Abel must somehow fight the hijackers, detect who is hitting him, and find a million dollars in loan money, just as his company is being publicized as a criminal organization.
A Most Violent Year's title leads us to expect a movie about a bloodbath, like say, Cronenberg's A History of Violence. It's not actually very violent at all -- but we feel the threat of same throughout. The title really refers to 1981, which filmmaker Chandor identifies as the worst year for law and order in New York City. Starved for money for firemen and police and all the services that make the city run, crime has run wild. Crooks and businesses take the opportunity to get away with whatever they can. Get mugged on the subway, there's nobody there to help you. Have your entire livelihood ripped off, you're on your own. And if you're an easy target for a D.A. with a reputation to build, watch out.
In crime films it is almost axiomatic for rich businessmen to be revealed as crooks, so we expect events to contradict Abel Morales when he tells people that he's an honest and moral man. But Chandor's film rejects such easy cynicism. Abel drives a beautiful car, has just bought a designer house and owns some of the best-looking coats one can imagine. Anna wears high fashion dresses exclusively. But they are under great stress. Who is targeting them? Why do both their lawyer and the Teamster chieftain urge them to take action that could destroy their company? Are the other heating oil companies sincere in their concern, or have they banded together to eliminate Standard as a competitor? For that matter, what angle is the D.A. playing? Lawrence can't make a dent in crime and nobody's going after the big thieves on Wall Street. But a flashy corruption takedown of a defenseless small company can energize Lawrence's political aspirations. Abel's problem seems a Reagan-era update of the detective's dilemma in the core classic film noir The Dark Corner: "I'm backed up in a dark corner, and I don't know who's hitting me."
The Morales's share similar problems with another filmic couple, Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren's true gangsters Harold and Victoria Shand in the equally incisive The Long Good Friday, who see their London turf being taken over by an unidentified new gang. Although Anna's family past might cause others to type her as a 'mob princess,' no organized crime is involved in their predicament. Abel and Anna took over the business from Anna's father, who was a gangster and who is now serving a long prison term. To get along in a hostile environment, Anna has cooked the books somewhat. But Abel has never stolen what belongs to others, coerced business from people or cheated in other ways, as someone's obviously doing to them now.
Determined to neither be a gangster nor act like one, Abel won't get tough by arming his drivers. His employees must go in harm's way for the company to do business, but they're not expected to risk their lives. One of Abel's salesmen is beaten and terrorized, a tactic that proves the goal is to put Standard out of business. Things go really bad when one frightened driver thinks he can get the Abel's attention by fighting back. How long can Abel and Anna hold up under this pressure? How violent will their unknown enemy become before it's all over?
We don't resent this couple because they're well off. We identify with Abel and Anna because many of our own home lives, marriages and life partnerships revolve around businesses, even if all we own together is a hot dog stand. Up to a point, even Hoskins and Mirren in the British gangster movie work admirably as a team. Writer-director Chandor keeps the film centered on the Morales's, with actors Isaac and Chastain's married relationship at the center of everything. He handles negotiations and she keeps the accounts. They're intensely in love. They have faith in each other, and each knows the other can handle enormous pressure. But how much is too much?
I really shouldn't be saying much more about this picture. It has several impressive action scenes, none of which follow a standard formula. We see some really touching, wrenching scenes with Abel's employee Julian and his girlfriend Luisa (Catalina Sandino Moreno of Maria Full Of Grace). When Chandor pauses to make little observations, they're worthwhile. That big oil storage facility is bought from a group of Orthodox Jews that dress like rabbis. When papers need to be signed, Anna apparently has to wait outside in the cold because of some religious rule about women and business. She looks really annoyed.
What gives the show its spark of fire is its relationship to the gangster genre: the message is that cutthroat business practices we see are no different than what Little Caesar and Scarface were doing in 1931. The attitude of unimpeded free enterprise (read: dog-eat-dog lawlessness) is the same even if people aren't using machine guns. Every businessman recognizes the kinds of pressure that come to bear when the only way to make more money is to push somebody else out of the market. The temptation to cut corners is strong when it's obvious nobody else is following the rules.
This show is actually a little more 'evolved' than those old blacklist-bait subversive noir pictures 1 that screamed that 'the system' is rigged and that decent people are forced to become criminals. Abel Morales is bound and determined, despite the provocation, to solve his problems without becoming a crook. He believes in the American ideals that at present seem totally absent. He's a real hero. The movie isn't about killing or torture or kidnapping. Some guns do get involved, but not in ways we expect. I think this is one of the most mature 'crime' films I've ever seen. It's a compelling examination of how free enterprise really works, without tight legal supervision.
Lionsgate and A24's Blu-ray + Digital HD of A Most Violent Year is a clean transfer of this impressive picture. The cinematography captures things as they are, or rather were, on the Jersey shore in 1981, in swank restaurants and ugly industrial neighborhoods. The moods of the cold, snowy winter are captured well in several scenes, while a standoff on a bridge in broad daylight is a major production accomplishment. The bad guys' flight on the bridge references the classic Jules Dassin picture The Naked City, with key differences: both the good guys and the bad guys run like scared rabbits, and the cops can't be bothered to chase them at all. No wonder eighties America became obsessed with vigilante justice.
The film has a credited composer but I was too riveted to the story to notice his work on this first pass. Whatever his music was doing, It pulled me in.
Some of A24's extras are pretty unusual. A set of making-of featurettes tries to be more than promo fluff. Another set of featurettes focus on a discussion between stars Oscar Issac and Jessica Chastain. She seems intent on getting more serious exposure for this worthy actor - did she insist on his casting in Interstellar?. A couple of deleted scenes are included plus a teaser and trailer. Writer-director J. C. Chandor provides a full audio commentary with his two co-producers, but also comes back for a short featurette with a doctor who has started a new social program that encourages municipalities to approach the problem of crime and violence as a 'social disease', like a virus. The idea is that the military approach has failed, and that crime needs to be treated in more creative ways. The pitch comes with an impressive TV spot as well.
Why didn't we hear more about A Most Violent Year last Oscar season? We're told that contractual obligation to Christopher Nolan's Interstellar prevented Jessica Chastain from promoting any other film, excepting on premiere nights. A small film needs star publicity to get attention, as the monster releases have the advertising edge. I'm really glad I caught up with this one -- in terms of having something really important to say, I think it is the equal of Dan Gilroy's Nightcrawler. Don't miss either of them.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
A Most Violent Year Blu-ray + Digital HD
Supplements: Audio commentary, making-of featurettes, Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain conversation featurettes, anti-violence featurette and TV spot, deleted scenes, teaser, trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case with info for digital download
Reviewed: April 2, 2015
1. What films am I talking about here? More review-essays attempt to explain what makes these socially critical movies so admirably 'subversive':
Body and Soul,
Force of Evil,
The Underworld Story,
Night and the City,
Try and Get Me!
Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson
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