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A Most Excellent Film

 125 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed by: J.C. Chandor
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain
Most Violent Year

When it comes to the Oscars, some directors have the Midas touch, getting acclaim and recognition for even relatively run-of-the-mill projects. J.C. Chandor, on the other hand, seems to have the leaden touch. Despite excellent reviews and a career best performance by screen legend Robert Redford, his last movie, All Is Lost, only received one single Oscar nomination (for sound). His latest movie, A Most Violent Year, may be even better than All Is Lost, but it was completely shut out at the Oscars.


A Most Violent Year calls to mind the opening scene from The Godfather, in which Bonasera, the local mortician, asks Don Corleone for a favor and begins by saying "I believe in America. America has made my fortune" Like Bonsasera, Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) believes in America too. He’s made, if not a fortune, at least a comfortable life in the home heating oil business in New York City. It’s a family business, one that he bought from his wife’s father and built into one of the most successful in the city in 1981.

But the heating oil business is not a reputable one. Most of Abel’s competitors are crooks, as was his father-in-law when he owned the business. Graft, corruption, strong arm tactics, and cooked books are the order of the day. A crusading district attorney (David Oyelowo) is investigating the industry and has targeted Abel, thanks to his prominence and his father-in-law’s competition. Despite all this, Abel wants to run his business honestly and ethically.


As Violent Year begins, Abel is at a career crossroads. He’s put down a huge deposit on a large storage facility, with the balance due in a month. If he closes the deal, he’ll be in a position to dominate his rivals, but if he defaults, he will lose the deposit and possibly his business. His competitors know this and they’re making life as difficult as possible, stealing his trucks and beating up his employees.


Abel’s wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) wants him to fight back, especially when his own family is threatened. But Abel persists in doing things his way, refusing to let his drivers arm themselves. His pleas to the district attorney for help and to his competitors to compete honestly fall on deaf ears.


At first, viewers will probably believe that Violent Year is a simple white hats vs. black hats type of movie, with Abel, in Gary Cooper fashion, trying to stand up for himself when all those around abandon him. But it’s a far more complicated movie than that. True, Abel’s competitors are thieves, his wife hasn’t been honest with him, his attorney (Albert Brooks) is a pragmatist willing to deal when needed, and even the district attorney soon proves to be pretty much of a political opportunist.


However, Abel himself, as we gradually realize, is no saint. His motto isn’t to do the right thing, but the most right thing, and that one extra word makes all the difference in the world. We first see Abel’s ethics on display when he gives sales pointers to his employees who go door-to-door, trying to convince customers to switch from one of his rivals. While not illegal or even strictly speaking, unethical, his suggestions are definitely on the shady side, as he demonstrates psychological tactics to subliminally influence customers. Later in the movie, it becomes increasingly obvious to Abel that being a saint will lead to the loss of his business, and he has to determine just where and how much to bend, and how to convince himself he’s doing what is "most right" among his options.


Violent Year is a fascinating business study in morality and ethics, but it’s also a crackerjack thriller. Abel is the prototypical nice guy in an ever tightening box, and the audience will be sweating right along with him as he tries to figure a way out of his predicament. Unfortunately, writer/director Chandor paints himself and Abel into a bit too tight of a corner, and the story’s resolution depends on a most unlikely coincidence at a most fortuitous time.


As you might guess from the film's title, there’s action in Violent Year, not a lot, but a couple of well staged chase scenes that call to mind William Friedkin’s equally gritty classic The French Connection. That’s not the only classic cinematic or literary reference in Violent Year. Abel, in dress, looks, and mannerisms, resembles a middle aged Michael Coreleone, while his relationship with Anna immediately invites comparisons with Macbeth.


Despite these similarities to the classics, Violent Year is very much its own movie, a film that has a crisp and fresh, thoroughly modern feel, despite authentically recalling the look of the early Reagan years. This movie could easily have been made 30 years ago by Sidney Lumet or three years ago by Oliver Stone, although, in my opinion, it’s a better film than either of those two versions would have been.


Violent Year is also a showcase for its acting leads. I had a bit of a hard time believing that the moral and ethical differences between Anna and Abel wouldn’t have manifested themselves before the events in the film. However, they prove a well matched set of partner/adversaries here. Chastain is demonstrative, a natural force, while Isaac remains pretty much a tightly wrapped enigma. We actually wish he would express himself more, but when he does so, in the movie’s most violent scene, it’s stunningly powerful.

A Most Violent Year is the rare movie about as mundane a subject as possible (the heating oil business) that is more fascinating than the vast majority of movies about far more glamourous and exotic subjects. It’s also a movie whose message and questions, few of which are completely settled, stays with audiences long after the house lights come up. The movie’s title is a clever bit of understatement, but there’s nothing understated about A Most Violent Year.

Read other reviews of A Most Violent Year:


A Most Violent Year (2014) on IMDb