“A Most Violent Year” provokes both awe and anxiety

By Ethan Sapienza

Via Entertainment Weekly

It is far from uncommon to leave a film feeling an emotional impact. Leaving the theater without experiencing some kind of impression is a rather poor quality. It’s rare to leave a film feeling a physical impact, yet such was the case after exiting JC Chandor’s “A Most Violent Year.” My muscles began to relax, releasing a swell of tension that had been building from the very beginning of the film, tension that never ceased.

The movie follows rising immigrant businessman Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) as he wishes to expand his fuel supplying company in New York City in 1981. Though he is already successful, seen in his numerous double-breasted suits and isolated though impressive suburban home, Morales has an insatiable hunger for expansion. The film begins as Morales plans to purchase an unused port for a hefty price, a deal that must be done in a month or both Abel’s down payment and cache with the landowner is lost. This all occurs during one of New York’s most violent and corruption-ridden years, as his company’s fuel shipments are continuously hijacked by an unknown, likely rival source, and an assistant DA (David Oyelowo) investigates him for fraud.

Information is revealed in a slow, yet clever trickle. Take Jessica Chastain’s first scene: she and Abel visit one of the company’s drivers in the hospital, injured after his shipment had been attacked by armed men. Chastain and Isaac discuss business formally, including intricacies of the aforementioned deal and other involved company details, which is then followed by a familiar, loving kiss. Not only an assistant, Chastain portrays Isaac’s wife. This measured pace is deliberate, as the fine details of the plot are less important than showcasing Morales’s drive and precision in life and business.

To best illustrate such a point, there is one scene early in the film where Abel is training salesman. He gives explicit details as to how to conduct themselves (choose tea instead of coffee when offered, it’s more expensive) and makes a point to say that they must maintain eye contact past the point of comfort. Morales’s directions are matched in his actions. He is purposeful and persuasive. Despite his claim to morality, there is a hint of mob boss to him, and yet is remarkably difficult not to root for him, as Isaac plays him equal parts seductive and intimidating.

The rest of the film follows suit, building around Morales. He receives pressure from all sides, his business is under constant attack. Chastain, who portrays Anna with electricity, urges him to lash out, hinting at her own organized crime background. His lawyer, a stable Albert Brooks, informs him of legal and monetary issues that seem to mount by the minute. All the while Morales calmly and confidently pushes through, though time always seems to be running out.

The visual style of the film matches its lead character. It frames the action in a dark and seedy yet enticing Brooklyn, with Manhattan ever looming in the background. What’s most worth mentioning are two astounding tracking shots, both centered on chase scenes. They are subtle explosions to relieve some tension, a kind of action infused catharsis.

At the end of the film, it’s astounding to realize that the events take place over a single month. This sly reveal gives a clear indication that this is only a portion of Morales’s life, a turbulent period though nothing too grave. The movie is tense and certainly enjoyable, but at least once its over the viewer gets to exit into a less stressful environment.

Ethan Sapienza is a staff writer. Email him at film@nyunews.com.

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