Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Movie Review: "A Most Violent Year"

New York, 1981. Abel Morales (Inside Llewyn Davis' Oscar Isaac) is the embodiment of the American dream—an immigrant who, through hard work and perseverance, has built his fuel company into a real player in the city. With his ruthless wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) and his consigliere (a subdued Albert Brooks) at his side, he's just made a deal to buy a large plant, which would give him better access to the river. He just needs to have the capital ready within 30 days.

The problem is, because Abel's company is making inroads, infringing on other company's customers even while charging more, he poses a threat. Unnamed parties have been hijacking his trucks and hurting his drivers and his salespeople. The Teamsters want to arm all of his drivers, which would cause even more difficulty. And all the while, his company is being investigated by the district attorney (Selma's David Oyelowo), who wants to make a name for himself and doesn't care if that means sacrificing Abel's company to do so.

While Abel and Anna feel the district attorney's investigation digging deeper and deeper, an incident involving one of his drivers, fellow immigrant Julian (Elyes Gabel), threatens to throw everything they have worked for off course, and jeopardizes the purchase of the plant. Abel is determined to find out who has been harming his business and gather the capital he needs to close the deal, but he wants to do it as honorably as possible, despite Anna's urging him to play as dirty as everyone else. Will he succeed in doing things his way, or will he have to compromise his stance, perhaps putting the company at further risk?

A Most Violent Year is a gritty, understated film written and directed by J.C. Chandor (Boiler Room, All Is Lost). It's also pretty fantastic. While there isn't nearly as much violence as you'd believe from the film's title, this is a story about a man driven to succeed, the woman willing to fight at his side (or behind his back), and those who try to tear him down.

While this is a tautly written and expertly filmed movie, the performances raise it even further. Oscar Isaac is masterful—he combines pride, determination, bravado, barely simmering rage, and a little fear that everything he has worked for may come crashing down. While he has a number of moments in the movie, one scene, where he gathers all of his competitors together, is quietly dazzling.

Jessica Chastain is utterly mesmerizing, chainsmoking as she stands by her man. A gangster's daughter, she's not above kicking a-- and taking names if necessary. She is truly a force to be reckoned with, and while often Lady Macbeth-type roles veer into camp, her performance is fierce yet a tiny bit vulnerable, as she's afraid that the lifestyle to which she has become accustomed might cease. Oyelowo's role is small, but he proves adept with a New York accent, and he once again emphasizes the egregiousness of Oscar's snubbing his performance in Selma.

I don't know why this film hasn't gotten more fanfare and acclaim, short of winning a few film critics awards and a Golden Globe nod for Chastain. While I've not seen all of the films officially released in 2014, this will undoubtedly make my year-end best list. The film, as well as Isaac and Chastain, are all more than worthy of Oscar nominations, and should have been included on this year's list.

Don't let the title fool you into thinking this is a bloodbath of a movie. This is a movie worth seeing—it might not blow you away with pyrotechnics, gunplay, suspense, or dramatics, but it will blow you away.

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