A Most Violent Year


Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

A Most Violent Year
"2014's best film of the year."

"There is always a path that is most right."

A Most Violent Year, set in 1981, is 2014's best film of the year and is opening on New Year's Eve in the US. J.C. Chandor's glacial and complex snapshot of the present through a cutthroat past is a guideline that promises the divided harbinger - half American dream, half the beginning of a descent into the inferno. They might be the same.

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In crime-laden New York during the winter of '81, we are taken on the course running, accompanying Oscar Isaac's Abel Morales, owner of Standard Oil, an expanding fuel company. His morning jog on semi-rural roads leads us to the economic wasteland of heavily graffitied factories by the river.

Isaac seems to seamlessly switch ages from scene to scene. His Abel is young and eager and older than his years, wise, conflicted, slick and bold, depending on the circumstances. And these are extreme. A lesser man would collapse under the pressure to "make it" in the fuel oil business where multicultural strands of immigrant families intersect.

Abel gives usable and haunting advice, evocative of David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross. He tells his new sales staff, if a prospective client offers them a refreshment, to "always pick the fancy option," because they need to know that you want - and offer - only the best. "Stare longer than you should," is a classic. Even Paul King's Paddington, the bear, knows about the "hard stare" of intimidating eye contact. It doesn't really help when the other person is ready to knock you out.

Jessica Chastain, as Abel's wife Anna and mother of his two girls, does the firm's bookkeeping, and is very much involved in the business, a welcome departure from still far too prevalent Hollywood wife-role fare. Their relationship is complicated and they do not solely signal good couple or bad couple. After a passionate greeting, he wipes off her kiss. In certain aspects, they know as little about each other as we do. Anna exclusively wears Armani, a choice intended to protect her. The belted white coat, lacy négligées and connotations with class perfectly fit her personality and hide the internal struggles with her mobster family background under cashmere and silk. Costume designer Kasia Walicka-Maimone has the right touch as she did in Moonrise Kingdom.

Chandor does not spoon feed anything about characters or plot, he hides the spoon and dragoons the audience to smell the porridge first, to look at the bowl it comes in, and eat when it's ready. He knows the craft and takes bold, wonderful storytelling risks. Robert Redford, a boat and a storm, without a single word of dialogue, were all the ingredients he needed last time. In A Most Violent Year, we learn about fear, drive, and capitalism through deliciously precise dialogues in pointed constellations. Cinematographer Bradford Young, who proved in David Lowery's Ain’t Them Bodies Saints that timely and timeless are not mutually exclusive, excavates the city's core.

What are the rules here? Violence is volatile, affiliations opaque. The cold naturalistic and heightened at once. Intense conversations, often between two men, about the business of their business are breathtaking in miniature duels. These verbal jewels make us feel the wars inside. Albert Brooks as Abel’s unreadable company lawyer Andrew Walsh has seen and heard much.

Abel's camel hair coat is his shield, sleek, sharp, expensive, at the border between flashy and restrained, at the brink from the Seventies into the Eighties. As an upstart, he is highly aware of what his clothes signify to others. Chandor uses objects as more than metaphor with considerable sophistication. A small black plastic ashtray sits on the table during an all important deal between Abel and the Orthodox Jewish garment merchant Joseph (Jerry Adler), the reluctant seller of New York harbor property that would change the fate of Standard Oil's future. This ashtray, unused because nobody smokes in the scene, is the visual narrative stain that points to a big hole about to swallow up our hero.

Radio voices heard in the background underline with their crime reports that this was indeed the most violent year in New York history. A driver is pulled out of his fuel truck by two men and finds himself in the hospital with a broken jaw and six thousand dollars' worth of heating oil stolen. This is not the first incident and the drivers want to protect themselves with guns. Abel wants to hear nothing of it, as he knows that his company is under investigation from the ambitious District Attorney (David Oyelowo) who knows about Anna's father.

Alessandro Nivola plays Peter Forente, Abel's main competitor, to whom business success came a generation earlier and who defines himself through his indoor tennis court. Not since Billy Wilder's elegant Sabrina with William Holden and Audrey Hepburn has this kind of location been used more effectively. Here, the chauffeur's quarters, symbolised by a little indoor balcony, seem directly connected to the rich son's playground.

Forente speaks softly, as if the tone of his voice could wrap his competitor in caramel. "My father's in jail," he says, giving us a glimpse into yet another soul, sold and tortured, frightened and filthy rich. "Have pride in what you do and stop," Abel suggests.

It is probably too late for that.

Reviewed on: 17 Dec 2014
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An ambitious immigrant tries to survive and protect his family and business in New York City.
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Director: J.C. Chandor

Writer: J.C. Chandor

Starring: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola, Albert Brooks

Year: 2014

Runtime: 125 minutes

Country: US


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