Review: A Most Violent Year (2014)

A Most Violent Year (2014)
Director: J.C. Chandor
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo
Coming out of this movie, I wondered how accurate it was. Not that it was in any way biographical, but the title and a lot of the context suggested that many people were suffering in this time and place. In the third film by J.C. Chandor, a battle of morality ensues in 1981 New York City. This is the story of one man’s oil company in a professional and personal struggle against other companies, as well as random street thugs, the District Attorney, and at a certain point his own psyche. This may have been labeled as an action film, but despite a few action-based scenes, this is a drama. Driven not only by well-written dialog but a fantastic performance by Oscar Isaac as a character standing up to the pressures of a criminal lifestyle, rightfully knowing what’s beneath him.
Oscar Isaac portrays Abel Morales, the owner of the Standard Oil company. The movie opens with one of his truck drivers getting reluctantly pulled out of by two thugs, held at gunpoint. The thugs then take the truck and drive away. The title comes onscreen, and our movie starts. Abel’s business is in a financial bind, and the many NYC oil companies robbing each other’s trucks is taking an even heavier toll. Morales could lose his business in the near future, and he refuses to partake in thievery. Everyone around him, including his wife played by Jessica Chastain, looks at him with confusion and at times disdain for his lack of conformity to a certain lifestyle. He however knows that there’s no point in hard work if you’re going to take such shortcuts. But in the midst of this personal battle, he is also frequently confronted by the district attorney played by David Oyelowo (who also recently starred in Selma), who is investigating him, determined to find something, only adding to the many things depriving Morales of sleep. Despite not having actual Mafioso, through many of the dialog scenes between oil businessmen, and one scene depicting all of them, Chandor makes some scenes look similar to cerebral gangster scenes from The Godfather.
This film displayed many similarities to Chandor’s previous movie, All Is Lost. We have a motivated and rather stubborn protagonist, and forces against him pressuring him to submit himself to the world around him. That, accompanied with certain lighting and cinematography, gives the movie a similar look and the near equivalent music again by Alexander Ebert gave a similar feeling to it. These things are less relevant or necessary in this movie as this is a more dialog-based movie in comparison to the 2011 film, but manages to establish trademarks amongst Chandor’s work. They both focus on a protagonist, but it’s not as much about them as much as it is the way they deal with what’s around them. We don’t know much about them, these are not full-blown character studies. This movie has more certainty than All Is Lost, as we know what the character wants, and watch them try to obtain it, while still having interesting results, rather than seeing what they’ll decide on as the next inconvenience occurs.
Great music? Yup. Looks good? Yup. Interesting situation? Yup. While this movie is overall very compelling, during the actual experience, and not thinking of the movie as a whole after the credits are rolling, the individual moments tend to lack individual significance. Many scenes lack significance due to the simplicity of the overall themes, story, and characters. What I mean by this, is that Isaac’s character, although he’s the survivalist of A Most Violent Year, is an unbending character, and one we know only a few things about. The film’s purpose was too light to be made into an entire movie, as well-done as it may have been. This made some events toward the ending to become rather predictable. Because of this, I don’t think A Most Violent Year will hold up tremendously over time. Yes, I know the movie is more about striving under various circumstances, but I feel as though Morales is a rather flat character defined almost solely by his beliefs. This is however almost made up for by his wife’s character, and dialog between them makes for some of the best scenes in the movie.

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