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Most Violent Year, A
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by Jay Seaver

"A most impressive film."
5 stars

"A Most Violent Year" was shot from an original screenplay by director J.C. Chandor, but it feels like a highly successful adaptation of a great novel: Painted on a broad canvas, giving a feeling for the characters and their world, but pared down to a story that feels complete and focused in one viewing session. It hits its target almost without fail without becoming too simple or ponderous.

The year in question is 1981, winter, when crime in New York was at its worst. Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) owns a small heating oil company, but he's looking to expand both via aggressive salesmanship and by purchasing a property that will give his business a great deal more capacity. Trouble is coming on two fronts, though - his trucks are being robbed, and a friendly but methodical detective (David Oyelowo) is investigating his entire industry. Abel is an honest and ethical man, mostly, but that may be a luxury given him courtesy of his lawyer Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks) and wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), herself a gangster's daughter and the one who keeps the books.

It's an elegant arrangement as a story; the general shape of things is clear very quickly but there is also room to explore. There's a mystery for characters to go through the motions of solving, but it never becomes the actual focal point of the film so that it feels neglected when Chandor spends time on something else. Though events revolve around Abel, other characters feel more intersecting than supporting, far from defined by how they intersect with him. Chandor also does a very nice job of keeping Abel actively involved, actually present and doing things at the moments where the story turns rather than just reacting after the fact; many stories along these lines will isolate the boss.

That puts a fair amount of demand on Oscar Isaac, but he shoulders it well. Abel's protestations of innocence require a fairly precise mixture of naivete and willing blindness which Isaac manages throughout the movie. To look at Abel is to see a gangster, even if the words coming out of his mouth are honest claims to the contrary, and Isaac walks that line in a way that gets sympathy without asking for pity, even as an undercurrent of desperate ambition comes through as well.

Jessica Chastain plays Anna as far more pragmatic, although thankfully not as bloodthirsty or a monster hidden behind her husband's charming facade. It's clear that Anna's mind is always working, and her occasional frustration with Abel comes across as conflict within the relationship as opposed to simple power-behind-the-throne material. The two play off each other extremely well, magnifying martial issues into grander melodrama without making them into only that. There's also some nice work down the cast list, from Albert Brooks as the lawyer to Elyes Gabel as one of Abel's drivers who is profoundly affected by being robbed at gunpoint.

The film is also beautiful, a recreation of 1981 New York that is disheveled but still vital - a scene toward the end has a character musing that he had forgotten that the land they were purchasing had the view of Manhattan it does, reminding the audience of why so much of the previous two hours were fiercely contested, even amid the inescapable snow. There are exciting sequences that are not mere show-stoppers, clearer action than most films for whom that is the prime goal even if it is mainly a means to an end here. There's not a shadow that is not put to good use to give Abel or Anna some sort of darkness to retreat to or point out how the truth is not always in plain sight.

"A Most Violent Year" ends by reminding us that there's always a bigger picture, and in fact playing that card twice in fairly quick succession. It's a great example of what the movie does well, managing to stay focused but aware that it's part of a pattern. A late and slow roll-out seems to have hurt its visibility for critical and industry awards, but it deserves plenty of attention anyway; it's one of the best of 2014 and only gets better upon reflection.

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originally posted: 02/08/15 17:20:12
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 AFI Fest For more in the 2014 AFI Fest series, click here.

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  31-Dec-2014 (R)
  DVD: 07-Apr-2015


  DVD: 07-Apr-2015

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