Monday, 23 February 2015
FILM REVIEW: A MOST VIOLENT YEAR
The district attorney in A Most Violent Year informs us that 1980 saw the highest rate of murders and rapes in New York City -- ever. But in early 1981, where J.C. Chandor's drama unfolds amid post-Christmas snow, things are just heating up and the most dangerous game in town is the heating oil business.
Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) has just purchased a river front property that will take his Standard Heating Oil company into the big leagues -- and the big leaguers aren't happy. Even as the ink is drying on the contract, one of Abel driver's, Julian (Elyes Gabel), is pistol-whipped and left on the highway as his truck and cargo are stolen.
The competitive world of heating oil may not sound like the basis of a good thriller but Chandor slowly turns up the heat -- the 30 days Abel and his wife and business partner, Anna (Jessica Chastain), have to come up with the rest of the money to secure the land deal serves as a ticking clock device -- in a film which recalls those of the 1970s, and not just aesthetically: character is more important than action and everything is revealed in what is and, more importantly, what isn't said.
As well as securing finance and battling their competitors, Abel must also deal with that pesky D.A. (David Oyelowo), who is investigating the corrupt heating oil industry and is determined to bring charges against Standard Heating Oil; charges which Anna and business partner, Andrew (Albert Brooks), may know more about then they're letting on.
Like the film, Isaac's magnetic performance is quietly on the boil. There are parallels between Isaac's Abel and Llewyn Davis; both men struggling to make a go of their chosen professions. But where Llewyn was his own worst enemy, Abel strives to be as honorable as his situation allows: he chooses to take 'the most right path'; wanting to succeed in a corrupt industry without stooping to the level which is seemingly required.
Chastain's Anna on the other hand is prepared to roll up her sleeves and get dirty, and beneath her Krystle Carrington hair and Armani wardrobe, Anna is a lioness. (There's the suggestion that Anna's family, who Abel does not want involved in his business affairs, may belong to "the family".) It's just a shame that Chastain isn't given enough screen time to fully unleash the Lady Macbeth within.
That's a minor quibble, for Chandor has written and directed a solid and engaging drama which is first and foremost about its people. After the GFC-centred talk-fest Margin Call (2011), and the one-man survival tale All Is Lost (2013), Chandor has made arguably his best film yet; aided greatly by Bradford Young's cinematography, and production and costume design which, while period-perfect, doesn't call attention to itself (nor does the soundtrack; thankfully absent of late '70s-early '80s chart hits).
Don't be misled by the title or the heating oil subject matter; A Most Violent Year is a gripping human drama.