Friday, January 30, 2015

A Most Violent Year

I've never been a big fan of gangster movies. Writer/director J.C. Chandor A Most Violent Year, however, is more a character study than a focus on the questionable business practices of a successful immigrant businessman (Oscar Isaac) during one the most violent winter's of New York City's history.

All things considered, Abel Morales (Isaac) is actually a good guy whose ambitions to enlarge the business leave him vulnerable to attacks from his competitors and investigations by the police. He also must deal with the ruthlessness of his wife (Jessica Chastain) and the mistakes of one of his drivers (Elyes Gabel).

A Most Violent Year is a well-made film that, even if it isn't as satisfying as I'd like, has plenty to recommend. The entire film is built around Isaac's performance which doesn't disappoint. Chastain is scary at times in the role of Isaac's wife and the daughter of a gangster (whose name gets dropped often but never makes an appearance leaving a large piece of the couple's lives unexplored). Scorpion's Elyes Gabel is put to good use as the eager but distrustful immigrant who wants nothing more than to become Abel.

The plot meanders in places but also provides opportunities for several strong sequences including a pair of unusual chase sequences and Abel confronting his competition en masse at dinner after coming to the realization that only of them could be behind the attacks on his drivers and his stolen trucks in a scene that is both understated and emotionally-charged emphasizing our protagonist's view of the world and what men should and shouldn't be willing to do to get ahead. Isaac infuses the character with the necessary humanity that is willing to bend the rules here and there to make his business successful but draws the line at violence, even in self-defense.

In the end J.C. Chandor offers an film that is far easier to appreciate than enjoy. The period setting of the 1981 Northeast winter offers a suitable backdrop to a dramatic tale that is more tense than thrilling. The characters themselves (even Isaac) aren't all that interesting on their own until the pressure (much of it brought on by his own actions) leads to the film's tension slowly being ramped-up until Abel is forced to ask himself just how far he will go to protect his business.

Despite having a bit too kind idea of human nature, Abel is actually a really good salesmen to his employees, his wife, and the businessmen with whom he tries to swing a huge deal which could change the landscape of the business for his company. He's also just good enough to convince himself to jump headfirst into an opportunity that could threaten to bring down everything he's built. The strengths and flaws of Abel as a character are where the true magic of the film is to be found and the inner battles waged within as his principles come into conflict with a world full of pressure and no easy answer in sight.

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