“A Most Violent Year”
By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer
I take unusual pride in having very little business acumen, doubtless a result of my semi-Hippy past and perhaps the reason this review of director J.C. Chandor’s “A Most Violent Year” isn’t being written on my yacht docked at some fairy tale atoll in the South Pacific. But such is not the case with Abel Morales, a rising star in the highly competitive but very lucrative oil delivery business in New York City, circa 1981. If he can navigate through the many roadblocks being tossed his way by competitors, the D.A. and mysterious saboteurs, he just might become rich.
Abel, convincingly portrayed by Oscar Isaac, features himself a good businessman, a claim which will be either proved or negated by movie’s end. He likes to think he plays the game straight, or at least more honestly than the bulk of his competition. But even factoring in the restraints applied by government and the untold vagaries that attend modern capitalism, he has done well. From various bits of smartly delivered story exposition we gather that, despite his minority roots, he has risen from driver, to salesman to owner. He is nothing if not positive.
When we meet the self-styled dynamo he is at the threshold of closing the biggest deal of his life…the purchase of a facility at the waterfront that bodes to be a total game changer. It’s a few million in 1981 money: 40% now, representing his entire life savings, and the bulk to be paid in 30 days, or else. He’s counting on his longtime pals at the bank to loan him the balance, which they ordinarily would. But the industry is being investigated for fraud and gosh knows whatever else the ambitious D.A. can find. As luck would have it, Abel’s company is dead in his sights.
It doesn’t help that his trucks are being hijacked and, in the morass of threats that follows when the teamster boss (Peter Gerety) demands Abel arm his men, one of the firm’s drivers, already beaten up once, goes off the deep end. The guv’ment, smelling blood and a new batch of compromising if not indictable offenses, tightens its noose.
It’s all rather tense and frighteningly realistic…the murky human interplay, survival of the fittest and canniest, acted out in scenarios not extravagant or farfetched, but familiar to us all. We’ve quickly invested an emotional interest in Abel and his devoted wife/right-hand woman/ bookkeeper, Anna, effectively etched by Jessica Chastain. They have been backed into the crucible of this broodingly dark meditation on the American Dream. Alas, they have a beautiful new home, two pretty little girls and lots of hopes. If only folks would just live and let live.
Truth be told, it all gives me the heebie-jeebies…people plotting, scheming and figuring out ways to get you. Not my cup of tea. I like romantic comedies, sci-fi, fantasies and a good western every so often. But this is done very well and, as long as it isn’t proven that Abel is doing something really bad, we’re rooting for him. Director Chandor, who wrote the screenplay, populates the bare knuckle atmosphere with a mix of stark pragmatists and a sprinkling of life’s necessary dreamers, convincingly played by a fine supporting cast.
Albert Brooks is especially evocative as a catalyst in these shadowy complications. He is Andrew Walsh, Abel’s ubiquitous lawyer. Mr. Brooks plies here the same authenticity he contributed in his role of the gangster Bernie Rose in “Drive” (2011), a stellar performance that puzzlingly didn’t at least receive an Oscar nomination, if not the statuette itself. David Oyelowo is properly unlikable as Lawrence, the inherently suspicious district attorney who can hardly veil his own aspirations; and Peter Gerety is right-on as the old-time Teamster boss.
But top supporting honors go to Jessica Chastain as Abel’s gutsy, supportive wife, Anna, whose climb up the ladder to success, we intriguingly learn, is motivated by a family background she’d just as soon forget. Possessing a few survival secrets of her own, the Armani-attired afflatus to her husband’s affluence wears her glad rags with a sincerity that defies nouveau riche vulgarity. It’s dog eat dog out there…a world where Social Darwinism has become so sophisticated that it dizzyingly blurs the tenets of integrity. Gray is the new morality.
This is a compelling chapter of Americana, its roots and ethos traceable to the earliest settlers’ pursuit of a hand in their own destiny and the happiness it might bring them. It is “West Side Story” all grown up and taking the minority quest for acceptance up yet one more flight. Full of the contradictions and hypocrisies that must occur when the human species rationalizes a one-size-fits-all ethos and vision, the consequences can’t help but make for “A Most Violent Year.”
“A Most Violent Year,” rated R, is an A24 release directed by J.C. Chandor and stars Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain and Albert Brooks. Running time: 125 minutes