A Most Violent Year (****1/2) is a good story excellently told

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A Most Violent Year – 2014

Written and Directed by J.C. Chandor
Starring Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola, Albert Brooks

 A Most Violent Year is a fascinatingly simple story that underlines the strength of a man and all the things that contribute and detract from it. Oscar Isaac is Abel Morales, the owner of the small but thriving home heating oil company called Standard Oil. As the story begins, we see Abel on the verge of completing a deal that will vault his company into the big leagues. Now, at the moment of his business life, he is served notice that his company will soon be under investigation by the feds. Before he can wonder why, his company is beset with a series of gas truck robberies which are an equal threat to the future of Standard Oil.

His wife, Anna (Chastain) has a straightforward approach to the situation.  Give the Feds nothing and go right after the guys stealing the trucks. Fight fire with fire, literally. She seems to know what the Feds are looking for, but will not admit anything. That her father was well acquainted with the process might have something to do with it. Abel’s Attorney (Brooks) is somewhere in the middle, of course. Abel wants to go about things the right way. When the attacks escalate, he starts talking to his competition, asking what they know. They are less informative than Anna, and not even remotely looking to his best interest.

One of his drivers who’d been attacked earlier takes things into his own hands and the results are disastrous for the company. Now his primary lender is out of the picture and he must now find other means.

As a pure character portrayal, A Most Violent Year is fascinating. Isaac’s performance it note perfect. We can see his shifting state of mind with every frame, whether by his facial or verbal expressions. He is not an unreasonable man, but he is tested on all sides beyond his sense of that reason. His relationship with Anna is a brilliant examination of dichotomy. Always on the edge of an explosion, she is constantly pushing his buttons to incur action on his part. The tension is palpable through most of the film. Still, they are clearly in love, and her support comes across as genuine interest in defending the family and her husband’s honor. That he doesn’t go to Pacino or De Niro levels of intensity in this role shows that he understands Abel’s motives, morality and his want to rise above the aspersions cast upon him. Not every actor needs to explode in every movie. Seeing Abel plug a bullet hole with his hand kerchief in an oil storage container after a tragic occurrence tells you everything you need to know about his character. It is a more powerful statement than any scream.

For Chastain, the character of Anna presents a complete switch from her stellar performance in Take Shelter. Her Samantha would do anything to make sure Curtis knew she supported him, even though her husband’s behavior is completely erratic. Abel is pensive and deliberate in his actions, and Anna pushes him forward with no regret or hint of humility. That she can reveal both characters so believably is a testament to her unparalleled skill in acting. If there is a better actress working today, I am unaware of her.

Oyelowo, as the Federal Agent hovering in the background, gives a silent menace with minimal screen time and dialogue. He has a powerful charisma that gives this small role the appropriate heft. Albert Brooks as a lawyer is not a stretch for him. He does not do much beyond just being Albert Brooks. That’s enough to get by.

Although this is primarily a drama, the few action scenes are revealed in a such a raw way, it feels like we are watching real life. Chandor’s pacing and intensity is often as awkward as it is violent, echoing John Sayles’ approach in movies like Matewan. He’s got an understanding for creating tension in a scene that is reminiscent of Martin Scorsese pre-Cape Fear. There is no question that he knows how to tell a story in an intriguing and quiet way which serve to make the occasional outburst more jarring. Kind of like Sidney Lumet. If it seems like I am mentioning a lot of directors, it is obvious that Chandor is as much a student of art as he is an artist. This desire will be crucial to his growth and our continued enjoyment of his work. If there is any sort of drawback, it’s that the story is pretty straightforward, with turns that are predictable.

A Most Violent Year has been Chandor’s least successful film so far. One could reasonably entertain the notion that this is due to being thrust into the midst of the Holiday season with a million other art house films. The effect would seem confusing to the casual movie watcher when a film is not marketed heavily or cleverly. It’s a shame, too. Films like these, performances like these, stories like this need to be seen.

(****1/2 out of *****)

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