Two ideas came to mind as I prepared to critically grapple with A Most Violent Year, the new film from J.C. Chandor (Margin Call and All Is Lost). The title lays bare its intentions and the film’s setting — early 1980s New York City, noted for being mired in crime and vice — strips away what little covering might exist with a harsh and brutal gesture.
What we have, then, is a story defined by the looming threat of violence, the exertion of force to intimidate, maim or kill, and the temptation of sin, the insidious enticement to venture across the moral boundaries an individual has set for himself. What would it take and what would be the impact on the individual as a result?
So often films start out with the tease, the hint of violence on the horizon, an inevitability that you must squint to see initially. But it causes a stir — strong winds blow as the moment approaches and then, when it hits, it does so in seemingly never-ending waves, crushing us against the backs of our seats, pummeling our sensibilities. In most cases, the narrative and the filmmakers can’t wait; they want to unleash the Krakens — their computer generated mayhem, their onslaught of rapidly cut sequences that give audiences little time to orient themselves.
But what Chandor does so well in A Most Violent Year is focus in on the slow-building suspense, the inner psychology of his main character, Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), a man caught up in a truly violent year, not just based on the historic record for New York City, but also his own life, where he is besieged on all sides by those seeking to tear him apart and pick at the scraps that remain.
Morales is easy to underestimate, but you do so at your own peril, for he is a righteous man.
His brand of righteousness is not a fiery sword that he wields swiftly to annihilate his foes; instead, righteousness is his truth, the ideal worth fighting for and the inspiration that keeps him safe within himself.
David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence comes to mind. John Wagner and Vince Locke’s graphic novel narrative and the film adapted from it pose similar questions for viewers in respect to society’s fascination with violence, its explosive power and allure. That film gives us a protagonist (Viggo Mortensen) who we come to realize has walked away from his blood-soaked past and forged a new life, a quiet existence in the middle of nowhere with the simple American Dream of a home and family and a peaceful night’s sleep, where the nightmares can be kept at bay. But how long can the past remain in the past?
The best-filmed representations are the ones that capture the raw chaos of the moment, its brutal efficiency and the bloody aftermath still engulfed in the heat of sticky execution.
Too often we get just the cartoonish bluster and noise, the repetitive drone of inexhaustible gunfire, the soul-deadening immunity to the effects of violence on the lives of others (the barely rendered stock characters wandering aimlessly in the path of bombs and bullets before our eyes).
In A Most Violent Year, we never get to know the extent of Morales’ own history of violence — what he faced and endured prior to becoming the man we see in the film — but we do get more than a glimpse of the historic violence lurking in the face and demeanor of his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), his partner in business affairs and an ever-ready partner in crime, for it is in her blood. She is the daughter of a mobbed-up man who exists only in hushed whispers, and she is proud of that heritage. She will lie, cheat and kill without a second thought in order to keep what she believes belongs to her by right.
But Morales worries about the lives potentially lost in those moments and he does everything in his power to avoid such instances, including ironically doing nothing at all, leaving his drivers in even more dangerous and precarious positions.
He seems to adhere to a higher (Biblical) code — turn the other cheek, walk away from the trucks with your life and live to drive another day.
Chandor’s title here will leave less discriminating audiences a bit cold and unfulfilled. Those longing for the spectacular set pieces, the operatic power plays by godfathers and wise guys will be disappointed, but if you are interested in the foundation laying of an empire and the epic ethical fight for one man’s soul, this Most Violent Year hits the mark and then some. (Opens Friday) (R) Grade: A (tt stern-enzi)