Dark, Gripping, and Morally Complex: A Review of J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year

a most violent year

The Film: A Most Violent Year
Director: J.C. Chandor
Primary Cast: Oscar Issac, David Chastain, David Oyelowo, Albert Brooks, Elyes Gabel
US Release Date: 16 January 2015

A Most Violent Year 
The third film from writer/director J.C. Chandor (Margin CallAll is Lost)A Most Violent Year is set in New York City in 1981 (statistically the most dangerous year in the city up to that point). The film’s hero (if that term can actually be applied to any of its characters) is immigrant and businessman Abel Morales (Issac). When the film opens, Abel is putting down a deposit on a large piece of land that he is attempting to purchase from a group of Hasidic Jews. Abel plans to use the land to grow his oil-shipping business even further (He originally bought the land from his wife [Chastain] Anna’s father). In order to obtain the land, Abel must be able to produce 1.5 million dollars in 30 days—30 days in which his trucks are repeatedly robbed and in which his company is heavily investigated and is charged with numerous crimes.

I have not seen any of J.C. Chandor’s previous work, so the expectations I carried into A Most Violent Year were based more or less entirely on my love for Issac and Chastain as well as on my knowledge that Bradford Young (Selma, Pariah) was the film’s cinematographer. That said, the film neither met nor failed to live up to those expectations; it defied them instead. This film is not the thriller that was sold by its trailers, and it certainly isn’t as explicitly violent as its title might suggest. Like the man at its center, this moody, tense, and morally ambiguous film refuses to succumb to the norms of its surroundings. Abel is determined not to become a gangster, and A Most Violent Year is not a gangster film, at least, it’s not the sort of gangster film that Hollywood is used to. 

Oscar Issac and Abel Morales
While it was Chastain who received a Golden Globe nomination for this film, it is Oscar Issac’s performance as well as the film’s characterization of Abel Morales that are responsible for its greatest successes. 

In a relatively short amount of time, Oscar Issac has become one of my favorite working actors, and A Most Violent Year makes it more than clear that he is a man with more talent than many have realized (at least, up to this point). As the careful, prideful, principled, and incredibly ambitious Abel Morales, Issac gives a memorable, powerful, and gripping performance that deserves more recognition than it seems to have received. Issac carries the weight of this heavy, cynical, and complex work with such skill that I feel confident in saying that the film could have suffered greatly with someone else in the role of Abel. Issac demands attention whenever he is on screen, shows the right amount of restraint, and paints a picture of Abel that is both fully realized and appropriately opaque. 

Full disclosure: Abel Morales is now one of my favorite on-screen characters from 2014 (so are Gustave H., Amy Elliot Dunne, and Father James). More importantly, his characterization and the way that he navigates the world around him are the foundation on which the rest of A Most Violent Year is built.

There is something very measured about Abel. He is a man who wants more (more money, more power, more respect), but he is also very particular about what he is (and is not) willing to do to get that more. Though his immediate goal in the film is to purchase a certain piece of land that will give him access to the water, there is no end in sight for him. There is no finish line that he can cross and then be satisfied. As controlled, as prideful, and as determined as Abel is, one also gets the sense that he is terribly afraid of anything that might drive him from the path that he has chosen from himself.

For the most part, there are two things in particular that Abel is more or less hellbent on avoiding: economic failure as a business owner and moral failure as a man. Unfortunately for him, he lives in a world where those who succeed in business typically do not hesitate to lie, cheat, steal, and kill to their heart’s content. Like Henry Hill in Goodfellas, Abel occupies a world filled with gangsters; unlike Henry, however, Abel has absolutely no desire to become one of them. Rather, he wants all the power and prestige of a gangster without any of the moral reprehensibility. At the same time, Abel is also haunted by the possibility that the small empire he has built for himself could collapse and vanish at any moment. Thanks to those same gangsters that he does not want to become, Abel’s business is constantly vulnerable to attack. He cannot risk letting his guard down, and he cannot afford for his company to stop growing, otherwise, he might end up right back where he started (a immigrant driving someone else’s trucks for someone else’s benefit).

Abel is a man who faces pressure on all sides, but who also refuses to bend. He speaks slowly and deliberately, because just about everything he does is calculated—that’s how careful he has to be. Some of his words may even sound rehearsed; maybe they are. Abel cannot rest. He cannot let up. The possibility of failure is always looming over him, and it will never go away either. As the character of Julian demonstrates quite clearly, Abel’s success is fragile, and his story could just have easily been one marked by utter failure. If Abel were a little less resolute, or if he were just a touch less ambitious, he never would have made it as far as he has. With Abel (the immigrant trying to make it without falling prey to the culture of overt corruption that he is surround by), A Most Violent year offers a nuanced and realistically pessimistic fable of the many dangers, difficulties, and pitfalls that define the great lie that is the American Dream.

Other Positives 
Like Oscar Issac, Jessica Chastain also gives a performance that helps to elevate this film above the world of the ordinary. As Abel’s headstrong wife (who also happens to be a gangster’s daughter), Chastain is electric, and the chemistry she has with Issac is superb. Her character both supports and challenges Abel, and the scenes she and Issac have together are some of the best in the film.

After its fantastic lead performances, one of A Most Violent Year’s greatest strengths is definitely its mood. This thriller/anti-thriller is more interested in moral dilemmas and in what it takes to make it in a violent, corrupt, and cutthroat environment than it is in acts of violence themselves. That said, the film does a great job of establishing an atmosphere—dreary, colorless, tense, threatening—that makes it very clear that, no matter how many violent acts do (or do not) appear on screen, that terrible things are always lurking just around the corner. Whenever Abel is driving around NY or is sitting in his office, his radio can be heard in the background. On it, a female broadcaster can often be heard reporting gruesome crimes that have recently been committed in the city. This small (but effective) detail makes it very clear that Abel and Anna occupy a world in which paranoia is justified and in which it is more or less impossible to relax. A Most Violent Year is a film dripping with tension, and the fact that the film’s pacing is on the slower side gives its bleak and on-edge mood more time to work its way under the skin of its viewers. Some may complain that one too many of the film’s tenser moments fails to climax in actual violence, but they fail to realize that Chandor is far more interested in convincing audiences that terrible violence is plausible than he is in shocking them with bloody images. After all, Abel’s real enemy is the inescapable atmosphere of competitiveness, violence, and greed that surrounds him and his business, not any one individual or action.

Young’s cinematography is also one of the aspects of the film that works well. In particular, his use of wide shots lends a certain coldness to the film that reinforces its overall mood and atmosphere quite nicely. Such shots also shrink the characters, thereby calling further attention to just how much they are up against.

What Doesn’t Work 
As positive as my review has been thus far, I do have a few problems with Chandor’s latest effort. This is a film that could have been truly great, but, thanks to a few missteps, winds up somewhere in the realm of “quite good” instead.

One of my main issues with the film is in its ending. I don’t want to spoil things, but a certain unexpected something occurs that feels clunky and forced and that needlessly interrupts the mood of the film rather drasticallyWhile I am a fan of A Most Violent Year as a whole, some of its final moments really should have been written differently. A more elegant and refined ending could have helped the film immensely.

I also couldn’t help but be bothered by some of the score. I don’t think I’ve ever really complained about the music in a film before, but there were several moments in A Most Violent Year where I actually found myself cringing at Alex Ebert’s work. While most of the score is appropriately dark and tense, there are also several instances in which it soars into cheeseland (and/or tries to make an action seem more ostentatiously victorious than it should). In these moments, the film is pushed out of its already established (and more sophisticated and understated) tone, and the results (for me at least) were jarring and had to swallow. These moments are overdone, are too obvious, and really do damage what is, for the most part, a nuanced, intelligent, and well-crafted piece of cinema. 

Until Next Time
Thank you so much for reading. If you like this post or what I do on this blog, please let me know by commenting, sharing, or following.

Also, I watched Prisoners (2013) and I Killed My Mother (2009) for the first time recently. I might review them on here (but I might not, so if you really want me to, say so).

2 thoughts on “Dark, Gripping, and Morally Complex: A Review of J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year

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