Wednesday, December 31, 2014

MOVIE REVIEW A Most Violent Year
A Portrait Of The Cost Of Doing Family Business, In '81

Oscar Isaac as Abel Morales and Jessica Chastain as Anna Morales in J.C. Chandor's "A Most Violent Year".

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Wednesday, December 31, 2014

It's an unholy triumvirate: money, family and crime.  These three tangle mightily in "A Most Violent Year", J.C. Chandor's most accomplished and best film.  New York City 1981 is the stage, and at the start Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues" serenades within petty criminal and business man Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) as he jogs.  Alex Ebert's superb vocal "America For Me" counters in the film's end credits as if a plaintive cry from Native Americans who affirm Mr. Gaye, and what the bloody history and love of capital have wrought. 

New York City's violence -- 1981 was its most violent year on record -- threatens to close in on the gentle, committed Abel, and he's always running from it.  Or he's chasing someone to stop it.  Moreover, people are always running from Abel, whose rigorous sense of ethics frustrates Anna (Jessica Chastain), who believes more in dispatch than in her husband's deliberation. 

Mr. Chandor's intimate film is about honoring words, the fertile ground of transaction and the shaky foundation both exist and travel on.  The American Dream shivers and shakes like jelly in Abel's hands as he tries to keep his oil truck business afloat and himself from financial ruin in Queens.  "You will have to realize that these are dangerous times, and you will have to adapt," Abel is warned.  He's wary of the warning, but Abel's a stubborn throwback, a man who believes he can avoid violence to settle the economic crises he faces, not only because he's a good, principled soul but because, perhaps naively, he wishes there was honor among thieves as well as men.

One of the year's best films, "A Most Violent Year", has a faded warmth, a pall -- a die well cast by Bradford ("Selma") Young's effective cinematography.  Mr. Young's honey-golden photography is drained, as if sadly, forlornly looking back at an era of integrity in a man whose kind and whose time have now passed.  It's a tribute, in a way, to Gordon Willis.  Further, Mr. Chandor's excellent and instantly re-watchable film recalls Sidney Lumet, who compassionately depicted the complexity of New York crime and conscience in the 70s ("Serpico", "Dog Day Afternoon"), 80s ("Prince Of The City") and 90's ("Q&A", "Night Falls On Manhattan".)

This new, quiet film has the tone and sensibilities of those two 1990s Lumet efforts, but Mr. Chandor, who writes and directs "A Most Violent Year" exquisitely, exudes a maturity and confidence all his own.  The exits and entrances of Abel's dilemmas and quandaries are leavened with a sensitivity that authenticates the era Abel swirls in but also exemplifies life's credos: simplicity, survival, family.  And money.  "We're not nice people to borrow three-quarters of a million dollars from," one loan man solemnly disclaims.  Abel, in response, wearily understands.  Like Mr. Chandor, Abel always considers.  He considers the weight of a decision, the shape of a conversation, and the mechanics of a promise undone.  Nothing is assured in a world of money and marriage.  One normally outlives the other.  Or not.

"A Most Violent Year" is Abel's reasoned, moral plea to the court of conscience, much less the rigorous -- and these days on Twitter -- unforgiving, public opinion.  He makes promises as others break theirs.  But Abel himself has unclean hands.  He has chosen dishonorable terrain for his honorable intentions.  Intentions however, never rescue or avoid enduring, unblinking truths.  The atmosphere of change in New York's hardboiled post-"French Connection" climate, morally and otherwise, is upon Abel, and the director showcases without championing Abel's admirable restraint while embroiled in it.  And often, the varying levels of rank in hierarchical crime structures, and the institutions that preserve those structures for their very own economic survival in America, politely handshake each other.

As a character Abel's name is far from coincidental, and all metaphoric, in the film.  We connect to Abel because, in many respects, we are him.  He wants to do the right thing and earnestly believes in good.  He's a modulated man whose idealism is constantly challenged, even mocked, by history.  He wants to plant the American flag in a place founded upon violence and forced enslavement of human beings.  In Abel's America money owns people and puts them under extreme duress.  Violence, in protection of enterprise, and existence, lurk around every corner.  The defeat, foreboded in Mr. Young's many brilliant shadings and shadowed isolations of Abel, is coming.

In the role of Abel Mr. Isaac is stunning, better even, than he was in a very different New York last year ("Inside Llewyn Davis".)  Here, he's a would-be Pacino Corleone, a man whom, just prior to late 1980s S&L scandals, New York mob crime boss hits and Wall Street catastrophes, digs in his heels for one last, dignified stand.  Abel seeks cover from a by-the-book District Attorney (David Oyelowo) who sees the embattled Abel for who he is and tries to help him with a felony plea deal.  "The result is never in question for me," Abel says.  "Just what path do you take to get there?"  That's Mr. Chandor's classic, absorbing film at its crux.

It's Jessica Chastain though, who is the film's apex, in one of the year's finest supporting performances.  Ms. Chastain, whose skills on stage and screen are honed to perfection, is magnificent as Anna.  Anna, a marvelous mix of complexity and dimension, exalts results.  Her motives are personified through deep love, commitment, sacrifice and protection of the bottom line.  She's a cynic, and a ruthless one.  She doesn't suffer fools gladly.  Anna's confidence and power is refreshing, and she empowers Abel for many years in their marriage, and has long believed in the power of action.  The film's best, most excellent line, is hers: "My husband is not my father.  Not even close."  Watch Ms. Chastain's delivery of it, in all of its declarative irony, and you will understand exactly what Anna's code is.  An Oscar nomination, a well-deserved one, is on its way to Ms. Chastain.

Mr. Chandor, whose first film ("Margin Call") was about money and disposable people, and whose second ("All Is Lost") was about the absence of money and people, combines the two in "A Most Violent Year".  The earlier films also showcased words or their absence.  In this third effort words have a tainted, inauthentic ring when spoken by some.  Abel, fighting for a foothold and his place in crime and business in the American landscape, is a fish in river of Big Apple crime sharks.  Shots of the jagged skyline across the East River seem to taunt the isolated Abel, who gives great thought to his own words as he speaks.  The director shades the words well.  Mr. Chandor's skills in crafting these three great films haven't diminished.  I hope they never do. 

Not that he or anyone in this new film's cast is, but Mr. Chandor need not pursue awards, for his great filmmaking pedigree is its own award, gift and reward.  So too it is for his actors.  He is generous to them.  Mr. Chandor lets them play.  He cares about them.  Here he gets genius poetry from Ms. Chastain and Mr. Isaac, whose push-and-pull in the heavy, violent 1981 New York City air they breathe is sensational.  Their palpable screen interactions are natural, succinct and rife with tension and drama.

There are two things people simply don't have enough of in "A Most Violent Year": time, and money. 

Also with: Albert Brooks, Alessandro Nivola.

"A Most Violent Year" opened today, New Year's Eve, in New York City and Los Angeles.  The film will expand to cities across the U.S. later in January.  The film is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for language and some violence.  Its running time is two hours and four minutes.

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