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Wednesday, December 31, 2014
A Most Violent Year
A Portrait Of The Cost Of Doing Family Business, In '81
as Abel Morales and Jessica Chastain as Anna Morales in J.C. Chandor's "A Most
Omar P.L. Moore/PopcornReel.com
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
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.
"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
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.
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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