*** Contains Spoilers *** Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is living the American Dream or so he's been lead to believe. From humble beginnings as a delivery driver, now to the head of a heating oil distribution company on the precipice of the biggest deal of his career, he encounters competitor sabotage, threats of litigation (with potential jail time) and everything he's worked for twenty years about to implode. Writer/director J.C. Chandor (Margin Call, All is Lost) examines the most travelled path of violence and denying the characters and audiences impulse.
Chandor does a wonderful job of creating the aesthetic of 1981 in fashion, architecture and mood for one of the biggest cities in the world at its breaking point. The industrial landscapes and city are tarmac and a glow of yellowing teeth; while the houses and structures are fortresses of wealth, the monarchy is money. It's working class New York City, the union run, corrupt to the core, it's rags to riches with real stakes. Chandor conceives of a devilishly indeterminate tale that in one way goes to affirm that stereotype while challenging the audience with the inherent greed that invariably rears its head as you peel away the layers.
Jessica Chastain's Anna plays Abel's wife, the daughter of a Brooklyn crime boss that's gone 'straight,' or so she'd like to outwardly portray. She's a character that's disorientating for Abel and the audience. She starts out like the trophy wife, and surprisingly gains sentience. Chastain pits Abel's manhood against what she deems as necessary next steps when you're being threatened. You see Abel have multiple moments of horror that the naughty neighbour from Toy Story Sid has when Woody (Tom Hanks) says "so play nice."
Albert Brooks' Andrew Walsh is a seasoned veteran of the murky truths of the business that Abel wants to elevate himself from. Brooks’ gravelly mellifluous calm denotes a man with apathetic cynicism coursing through his veins. David Oyelowo plays D.A Lawrence; he's calmly going to use Abel's scalp as his political propulsion and what's more he's apathetic to whether it's going to be genuinely just, and more concerned with the profile of the case.
Isaac does a wonderful job navigating the ambivalence of Abel's character. Upon reflection it's so difficult to get your head around whether he's a genuinely honourable character that's being used as the perfect 'front' to a straight laced business; or is it a possibility that he's had selective acknowledgement of the slick and the stain that is rife in his business. Chandor and Isaac craft moments for the character that are so opaque that as you keep reflecting upon them your mind casts them in a different light.
In the opening sequences of A Most Violent Year, Abel (Isaac) is going for his morning run. Dressed in the grey sweats, pounding the black pavement bordered by snow covered earth, your first impulse is perhaps to think that this man is determined to work. As the whole film unfolds though the scene haunts you, perhaps a better question to ask is what's he running from?
Blake Howard - follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Directed by: J.C. Chandor Written by: J.C. Chandor Starring: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola, Albert Brooks, Elyes Gabel, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Peter Gerety, Christopher Abbott, Ashley Williams, John Procaccino, Glenn Fleshler, Jerry Adler, Annie Funke, Matthew Maher, David Margulies, Pico Alexander
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