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A Most Violent Year - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
A Most Violent Year
Directing: A
Acting: A-
Writing: A-
Cinematography: B+
Editing: A

You might expect a lot of violence in a film called A Most Violent Year, set in New York City in 1981, with a prosecuting attorney noting that the previous year had the city's most murders and rapes on record. People in the early 21st century complained of the "Disney-fication" of New York City, but films like this remind us of the kind of cesspool the city was in the late 20th century. Writer-director J.C. Chandor (who also wrote and directed 2011's criminally overlooked Margin Call) knows how to show there's no romanticizing that era, but he also does it with subtlety.

Violence, predictably, comes on early in this film, but never quite in the way you might expect. It's not like an action film, whose purpose is to desensitize you to it. Much of A Most Violent Year is spent merely with the threat of violence, making this a particularly tense movie. A potential home intruder is chased off one night, and the next day a little girl is found playing with a loaded gun. The image itself, and the risk it represents, is horrifying enough.

In some ways, Chandor seems to have attempted a 20th-Century Godfather, with a businessman (Oscar Isaac) hell bent on running a legitimate business in fuel delivery business rife with corruption. Little by little, extenuating circumstances chip away at his resolve. The difference with him is he never orchestrates violence, and refuses to bow to pressures, particularly from his drivers' union, to engage with it. This quite literally puts his employees at risk -- both his drivers, whose trucks keep getting hijacked, and even his sales people.

Some have complained of a lack of depth and meaning to Jessica Chastain's part as Anna Morales, Abel's wife, who we learn has a criminal father and brother. Basically she comes from a gangster family, which Abel repeatedly insists she not get involved. We never meet any of these family members of hers, nor do we learn anything more about them, but it's just as well. This story is about Abel and Anna anyway -- not her family. Eventually we learn how being from such a family affects Anna's decision making, and what that means for Abel. On the other hand, we are left to wonder how Abel managed to get involved with her in the first place, and secondly how he managed not to get entangled with his in-laws.

That said, the story we are presented with, edited with tight precision, is enough. The aforementioned prosecutor (David Oyelowo), making life particularly difficult for the Morales' own lawyer (played by a nearly unrecognizable Albert Brooks), is convinced that, like everyone else in the industry, Abel is breaking the law, and plans to file multiple charges. Abel seems sincere in his belief that he has nothing to hide. If his company is engaged in any shady practices, he doesn't know. We are left to ponder what might be going on behind his back, and to what extent Anna, who does the accounting, might be involved. It's a while before any definitive answer is provided on that front, but Jessica Chastain is superb at keeping us guessing.

Anna and Abel have three daughters, who are spoken about frequently but we only see once. If anything could make this film better, it would be to have featured the daughters as actual characters in the film -- surely they are affected by all this as well. The tendency of films in recent years to establish the existence of children yet treat them as afterthoughts frustratingly undercuts believability. But, in this case at least, it still has little to no effect on the impact of the story.

Abel gets increasingly desperate as the closing date on a waterfront property he's trying to buy approaches, and violent incidents get out of hand. He has to switch up who he asks for loans, turning to the very corrupt competitors he despises. In the end, it all hinges on Anna, and there may be some debate on how this twist is handled and presented. I thought it made sense.

A Most Violent Year paints a city in decline, right down to the subway cars coated with graffiti that no longer exists. This was the zenith of life in New York, with an upswing too far ahead for anyone then to see on the horizon. J.C. Chandor zeroes in on one couple at the helm of one company in one industry, yet manages to make them representative of a specific time and place in history. With truly solid performances all around, it makes for the kind of movie-going experience, particularly for adults, that is hard to come by these days.

Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain lock horns regarding company incidents in A MOST VIOLENT YEAR.

Overall: A-
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