A Most Violent Year – J.C. Chandor (2014)

I’ll admit it: I dislike Jessica Chastain. Like most prejudices, there is no very good reason behind this one. She’s not a terribly versatile actress – and she never struck me as a sincere one either. (The tabloids have made some small fodder about her actual age, which she’s been coy about; this bothers me not a whit, as actresses need to be cagey given the crap they have to deal with to find work. All the same, playing a teenage orphan at age 31, as she did in Jolene, which “introduced” her to a wider viewing public, is pushing it, given that she looks close to her age). Her role in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life summed up her range: attractive in a porcelain kind of way, competent enough, but not much there there. No heat or depth, and “warm” and “caring” in that aloof way that fails to charm or convince. Her subsequent work in Zero Dark Thirty and, to a lesser extent, Interstellar, ostensibly gritty roles, did nothing to modify my view. A lot of strident striding around, being “tough” in a cardboard kind of way which also somehow verged on chewing the scenery. It is with some relief that I can thus report that her turn in A Most Violent Year, in the role of a Brooklyn mafioso’s streetwise daughter (scary to contemplate, I know) actually comes off with some subtlety. The accent is a bit dodgy, but her performance is, dare I say it, convincing, and even a little bit sexy. Her part, while well written, is somewhat underwritten too – or, at least, not the narrative driver that we expect. Many things about the film are unexpected, though.

What’s this movie about? I had no idea. It looked like a gangster movie, and the little I’d read didn’t dissuade me from that evaluation, except to add that the film was slow and had no plot. Okay, so what? (I like it better already, probably). In reality, this is a drama about the dog eat dog world of the heating oil business circa 1981 New York. Yes, this probably accounts for the mystique surrounding the promotion of the film. We keep expecting it to be a gangster movie, or at least, for heating oil to meet up with Chastain’s Dad in a back alley to seal the deal. No dice. Oscar Isaac, looking like the love child of Al Pacino and Armand Assante, plays Abel Morales, one of the larger players in said industry, on the verge of making it to the big leagues – he’s just put down his life savings on an oil import terminal, and now has thirty days to clear the money to own it outright, or lose his deposit and the property. The film is basically a portrait of those thirty days, and of his quest to secure the funds against the machinations of his competition (and the District Attorney). Chandor does not play this out the way you might think, however – little overt “suspense” or action, just time passing and bad news piling up. This is not a flaw, though, for the low-key portrait is plenty compelling and fits with the larger purpose of this tale. Morales, in some ways a false echo of Pacino in Godfather III, is set on playing it straight, doing things in an above-board way, and not solving violence with violence. The backstories to all the characters are alluded to, but never fully fleshed out (again, all to the good, at least in my mind). We get the feeling that he owes his business opportunity to his father-in-law, and that, since then, he has worked to differentiate himself from that path. Working against him, in smallish ways, are his wife, who instinctually reverts to the family way of solving problems, and his lawyer, played by an excellent Albert Brooks, who we come to understand is also Dad-in-law vestigial. The film keys us to expect that, given the continual road blocks thrown up to Abel’s plans, eventually he will turn to bad Daddy for help, and this will be his downfall. If not that, we think perhaps he will reveal his true colors, and the film does develop some tension along the lines of “how far can a good man be pushed?” And also: “is this a good man in a bad position, or a bad man trying to go good who, unable to change his ways, will pay for denying his true nature?” Without giving anything away, I will say that the film answers those questions without satisfying any expectations. More than anything, this is a film about how little distance there often is between being a businessman and being a thug; or rather, that being in business often means doing things the wrong way, grinding people down, and acting like a mafioso, because that’s the nature of making money, and that the firewalls society sets up to supposedly prevent this from happening are indeed disingenuous, obfuscations that allow us to pretend “civilized” behavior and capitalism are not mutually exclusive. As a portrait of life in (an admittedly shadier than average) business, and of New York in the early 1980s, it is extremely well done, always compelling and interesting without ever feeling trite or falling into generic expectations (as it is not a genre film after all). The ending, while a bit contrived and expected, is symbolic of the whole enterprise, and of Morales’s untenable position. On the whole a very satisfying, unexpected pleasure.

Three and a half stars out of five

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