Feelings play an integral part in the framework of “A Most Violent Year,” not in the sense that they open up proverbial emotional states or expose mental wounds – although we suspect they do trickle beneath the surface – but more directly in regards to how they rouse the heart of a man who refuses to stray from a personal philosophy. In an integral moment of dialogue, his words strip him of all illusion and façade: “When it feels scary to jump, that is exactly when you jump, otherwise you end up staying in the same place your whole life.” A man who does not feel things does not abide by such conviction, otherwise he wouldn’t be so deadpan in living that mantra even as the eroding social realities of life could disrupt that prospect. It is because his heart and spirit are stalwart that he is able to reach this point in his destiny without a tarnished perspective. Some would refer to the outlook as idealistic, others still foolish. But it is a road so few travel that there is a deep-seeded fascination we have in how such ideals could endure against unstoppable forces. It’s a lonely world for any man at the wrong end of a crime spree, and certainly it must say something for one’s own feelings to stare back at the barrel of a gun without compromising against the fear.
All of this stirs within the eyes of Abel Morales, a very successful heating oil tycoon in New York City who, in the crime-saturated culture of 1981, has his eyes firmly fixed on a prize despite a plethora of dangerous roadblocks. He is played by young Oscar Isaac, a relative unknown who reads through the screenplay as if in harmony with its unsmiling approach. For two thoughtful hours of screen time, he stands firmly at the center of the camera’s consciousness like a light refusing to be suffocated by darkness; he is a man who decided his destiny long ago, and has somehow devised a successful method in keeping the tempting odds of corruption far beyond his line of thinking even as his work is threatened by the devious appetites of others. The fact that he finds such glaring success in an industry perceived as a playground for illegal activity certainly undermines his case, and when a hot shot District Attorney warns him early on that felony charges will be filed against him and his business for suspected illegal activity, there is no desire in the audience to suspect shady dealings; he is simply too respectable to be anything other than genuine.
His persistence as an all-around good guy driven by professional success carries through the movie like a wind of insistence. The film opens on a cold winter morning in early ’81 as characters gather for the first phase of a brand new deal: the purchase of a large piece of property hugging the Hudson Bay, which could effectively escalate the growth of his business while putting many of his competitors on the unemployment line. He has 30 days to secure the hefty down-payment for this valued slice of land, and of course there are realities circling his goals like psychological vultures. The city is immersed in a very dangerous crime spree – the worst on record up to that point, no less – and Abel’s fuel trucks are being hijacked at an alarming rate on the open road. His competitors eye his ambition with despair and resentment, creating underlying intrigue (could they be responsible for the hijackings?). Strangers attempt to burglarize his new house, and a young daughter finds a loaded gun in the bushes. That in turn sets off the maddened demeanor of his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), who carries her own ironic baggage: namely, the fact that she is the daughter of a gangster who could call in favors if so provoked by Abel’s inability to match fists.
Meanwhile, the nature of the heating oil industry has put legal crosshairs on all those associated with it, and because Abel’s business is thriving much higher than others, that makes him the most viable target. As tensions escalate with impending charges and asset seizing, the bank that would fund his loan for the big purchase sits nervously on a tightrope between commitment and denial. As elements to cause sway on that possibility, the plot adds additional layers of conflict: namely, the prospect that Abel’s truck drivers (all supplied by the Teamsters) are feeling rather nervous about transporting anymore of his tanks, and a union representative is suggesting they all be armed with handguns to protect themselves against likely hijackings. But how would all of that look for a man who is on the brink of gambling his entire thriving business under the cloud of a very violent city? And furthermore, what could that possibly do to him as a person and as a businessman, especially considering how far he has made it in this game while maintaining some semblance of professional ethic?
The movie is ripe with fascinating observations, all played by actors with straightforward conviction in a screenplay that placates the urgency of the title in order to sidestep the temptation of indulging in visual excess (most of the violence on display is incidental, and nowhere near as graphic or gory as most would expect). For writer/director J.C. Chandor (a newcomer whose “All is Lost” won accolades in the festival circuit a year prior), those are not surprising qualities; of many recent new filmmakers, his talents are in establishing details without overloading them in useless fanfare. The film’s greatest scene – a meeting with prospective new hires for the sales branch of his company – contains a morsel of insight so precious that it’s remarkable how casual he approaches it; Abel speaks to his team about the effectiveness of a long stare when it comes to luring customers, and does so with his own elongated gaze that seems to cement his authenticity as both an effective leader and a competitive businessman in the thick of shark infested waters. This is a man who believes in the American Dream and will encourage all others to follow him towards it, even as the dream clearly becomes a nightmare for so many others.
But “A Most Violent Year” is not like most dramas. It does not exude the values or bullet points of suspenseful movie storytelling, nor does it spend much energy on rising actions or climactic epiphanies. Some would argue it’s rather dreary to watch in that regard, I suspect. But it is so well made and focused as an endurance test that our eyes refuse to turn away from the events, even as the movie drifts breezily through the material and suspends the majority of the obligatory tension in order to concentrate on simple behavior. If our culture is so saturated by the need to experience singular sensations that it has nearly forgotten what it’s like to meditate on themes, then Chander’s film plays like an awakening of that mode of thought. A great many things happen throughout these two hours of material – some too precious to mention – but they transpire as conduits for wonder: in character development, in hypothetical scenarios, and even in regards to understanding qualities that seem so foreign in modern hindsight. Abel’s most powerful characteristic gives him an aura as an elusive body of purity, but that does not necessarily bode well for general optimism in the audience, either. Just think what a depressing irony it must be to realize that one’s honor can be such a glaring liability in a thoroughly dishonorable world.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Drama/Crime (US); 2014; Rated R for language and some violence; Running Time: 124 Minutes
Oscar Isaac: Abel Morales
Jessica Chastain: Anna Morales
David Oyelowo: Lawrence
Alessandro Nivola: Peter Forente
Albert Brooks: Andrew Walsh
Elyes Gabel: Julian
Produced by Glen Basner, Joshua Blum, Neal Dodson, Anna Gerb, Jonathan King, Kerry Orent and Jeff Skoll; Directed and written by J.C. Chandor