Sunday, January 4, 2015

"A Most Violent Year"

 4 / 5 

Muted in every possible way, cold and frosty in setting and tone, A Most Violent Year chronicles the struggles of a gangster who genuinely believes he is a businessman in a city -- not to mention, perhaps, a country -- that genuinely believes it has not been built by criminals.

The dichotomy proves to be too much for the city, which in 1981, the year in question, has devolved into a crime-ridden, graffiti-filled urban wasteland.  But Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) still clings to his delusion that hard work and good, old-fashioned high-pressure sales tactics have kept his family's business growing and strong.

Abel, whose name is pronounced with a stress on the last syllable, isn't stupid; he knows that corruption is everywhere, but imagines himself to be slightly cleaner, slightly more sophisticated and above-board, than his competitors, the kind of people who operate their multi-million-dollar businesses out of trailers with plywood walls.  Abel and his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), have just bought the kind of suburban mansion that was in vogue in the late 1970s, with plate glass windows, sharp edges, and lots of Formica in the kitchen.  Abel is proud of what he has accomplished.

"I've spent my whole life trying not to become a gangster," he says, a line that more than echoes Michael Corleone's Godfather III lament, "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in."  A Most Violent Year echoes the Godfather movies in other ways, but also bears a strong resemblance to the New York dramas of Sidney Lumet.  Writer-director J.C. Chandor, in a major rebound from last year's over baked and underthought All Is Lost, works hard to create a mood of suspicious regret -- Abel isn't dumb enough not to know what's happening, he just wishes it weren't.

Abel's business is heating oil, a fact I intentionally failed to mention earlier because it's the rare moviegoer who will be intrigued by the come-on that one of the year's most accomplished and intriguing films is about the competition for New York's home-heating business in 1981.  Trust me on that count; A Most Violent Year will tell you everything you need to know about its setting, and will do so in the way it does everything else -- in time.  This isn't a film for impatient viewers.

That's something it shares with Foxcatcher, a movie I found remarkably over-praised and under-played.  Chandor takes a similar tone but finds genuine intrigue and, in the end, enormous suspense by playing his hand with deliberate even-handedness.  Despite his camelhair overcoat, expensive shoes and neatly trimmed hair, Abel is not nearly as much in control as he thinks, which he begins realizing as soon as he makes a move to expand his business empire.

Soon, he's learning that a deputy district attorney (David Oyelowo) is digging into his books, and that his crisply efficient wife knows much more than she's been letting on.  Meanwhile, someone is hijacking his company's trucks, leading to a fateful decision to arm the drivers.  Abel begins to suspect he knows a lot less about the dealings than he should, leading to a car-versus-truck set-piece that may not be as flashy as William Friedkin's work in The French Connection but is equally suspenseful and deserves comparison.

While there were moments in which the languid pace (along with the murky, intentionally flat cinematography) of A Most Dangerous Year began to wear on me, they passed quickly, and I found myself more absorbed than I could have reasonably expected by a story about a war over heating oil. At the end of a most depressing year for films, ruled by noisy explosions and effects-heavy sequels, A Most Dangerous Year is made for adult audiences; it treats them like grown-ups, and expects to be treated the same way in return.  It earns and deserves that kind of respect.

Viewed Jan. 4, 2015 -- ArcLight Hollywood


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