A Most Violent Year fall movies

A Most Violent Year Review: Self Delusion, Dramatized

Friday, January 30, 2015 Rob Samuelson

A Most Violent Year

Director: J.C. Chandor
Writer: J.C. Chandor
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Albert Brooks
Rating: Four stars out of five

Human beings have a fascinating propensity for self delusion which also happens to be nearly impossible to portray in a visual medium like film. It's such an inner process, so much thinking, hardly any action, that would seem to be the antithesis to cinema. And yet, A Most Violent Year's Abel Morales, played by Oscar Isaac of Inside Llewyn Davis, has a knack for it, an addiction to it, and the man directing this internal activity, J.C. Chandor, makes it riveting drama.

Abel is a businessman in 1981 New York. He is trying to expand his heating and gas company during one of the most crime-ridden years of the city's existence. His drivers are constantly being robbed at gunpoint, their jaws broken, his profits eaten into by the thieves who may or may not have been hired by his competitors. He has 30 days to finalize the purchase of a property that would solidify him as the city's king of the business, and he's not quite there with the money. He and his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), have recently moved into a new mansion in the suburbs with their daughters, grasping at straws as to what the American dream means for them.

Despite Abel's life's goal of always being on the straight and narrow no matter what, his company's good name is being sullied by an investigation carried out by an ambitious state's attorney (David Oyelowo). He does everything right. He conducts his business in the light of day. He pays his employees a fair wage. He teaches them sales, not strong arm tactics. He is assured every step of the way that his company follows “every industry standard” by Anna, who handles the company's books.

But Anna is the daughter and sister of gangsters. Men like those with whom she shares blood also have ties to, and competition with, Abel. Not everyone shares his ideas about ethics and “follow[ing] the path that is most right.” Abel is surrounded by people who care less about scruples than power and money. He is part of that world and he thinks he can best all of them by being the most righteous. But he isn't better at living on the proper path. He is better at averting his eyes from the truth in front of him, although his body language gives away his knowledge of things he won't admit to fully grasping.

When his wife first kisses him onscreen, he pulls away and wipes his lips. But she's glamorous in that period-specific way with her obscenely long fingernails, her cleavage-baring gowns, her wine-and-cigarette accessories, and her assured confidence. Plus she truly does love him. That is not an act. She doesn't hide herself from him. He only sees in her what he wants to see to make things easier to accept.

Abel avoids violence at all costs, flinching whenever a hint of it enters his view, becoming enraged when he encounters things that may incite it. The title of the film is a clever misnomer for the most part, as it is more concerned with the reaction to a world devolving into a state of chaos, both inside and out of this insular business world – Abel is always listening to news radio reports of serial killers, rapes in the park, and other horrendous crimes when he's not listening to the company CB radio dispatcher frantically try to help the drivers as they are held up at gunpoint. Anna is more of a realist about where they are in this life and the need to protect themselves at all costs. She is more comfortable with guns and standing up to powerful people with tough talk about “disrespect.” It is a quality Abel lacks and something he desperately needs supplemented by his wife.

In that way, A Most Violent Year is a film about partnership, confederation, and the actual “legitimate business” side of the gangster coin you don't see much in films. There are bits about hiring goons to rough people up, but it's all related to maintaining clientele and territory for the heating and gas business, not for racketeering, illegal gambling and the like in most mafia movies. This is a smaller scale, a grubbier side of this world, probably more true to life in its ground level look at it. And it allows for these characters, and the actors portraying them, to paint a picture of striving, fighting for every inch of leverage.

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