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Most Violent Year, A (2014)

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Score: 8/10

Genre: Gangster Running Time: 2 hrs. 5 min.

Release Date: December 31st, 2014 MPAA Rating: R

Director: J.C. Chandor Actors: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola, Albert Brooks, Elyes Gabel, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Peter Gerety, Ashley Williams

I

n New York City in 1981, Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) investigates the repeated robberies of his Standard Heating Oil trucks, presumably being attacked by competitors. These dangerous times require a certain level of adapting that Abel is reluctant to acknowledge, especially as his drivers fear returning to work and his salesmen soon become targets of attacks as well. During a visit to the police, he’s informed that the District Attorney’s office plans to bring charges against his company for criminal activities, namely fraud and tax evasion; but his lawyer, Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks), proclaims it as a badge of honor. Morales’ company is finally large enough to show up on law enforcement’s radar.

Meanwhile, Abel and his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) – who tends to the books and financial affairs – move into an enormous new home, where a goon with a loaded gun snoops around the property at night. The message is clear: industry rivals are prepared to push back hard against Abel’s intrusion into the trade. “I’ll take care of it,” he insists, though his intentions not to get drawn into illegal methods of defense don’t comfort his wife or his employees. This failure to immediately resort to bloodshed and over-the-top violence is what separates “A Most Violent Year” from other iconic crime epics. The more modern setting also bestows subdued reactions for the sake of realism. Here, pride trumps action, which eventually reveals waning potential for cathartic endeavors, regardless of the lead antihero’s worthiness or victoriousness. In the end, excitement rarely shows its face, even though it seems to always linger just around the corner. The film is something of a thinking man’s gangster flick.

“We’re not who you think we are.” As an update on the classic mobster drama, “A Most Violent Year” tells the familiar tale of a businessman forced to relinquish his ideals of peaceable commerce to combat the criminality rapidly encroaching on profitability and security. Although there is no elder Mafioso to guide Abel in the ways of corruption, Isaac, who is unusually perfect for the role, imparts a distinct Corleone-like seriousness and menace. His moral transition isn’t as drastic, as he doesn’t start entirely on the outside of the dark world he inhabits, but he definitely ends dourer than he began. Twisting around the typical subservient role of the mob wife, Chastain’s Anna is, at times, even more severe and uncompromising. The supporting cast is also exceptional, providing no weak links.

The opening moments are also vaguely reminiscent of “The Godfather,” with calm orchestral music (Alex Ebert’s score features many superb measures that play over brief scenes of characters in thought and during segues, though it’s sorely missed at the finale, where a horrendously unfitting song replaces the somber melody), sudden violence (during an oil tanker hijacking), a cash deal between shady businessmen, and star Isaac’s harsh yet expressionless visage brooding over looming transactions. Chase scenes are more exhilarating than anything witnessed in recent years, even when they don’t involve gunfire or explosions (one even presents a subtle homage to “The French Connection”). And conversations between thugs masquerading as capitalists exhibit tenseness and anticipation. In many ways, “A Most Violent Year” is the supreme anti-gangster film, as it depicts a contrastingly contemporized angle to the standard, easily cinematic versions of machinegun-toting hoods and cutthroat familial conflict.

– Mike Massie

 



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