With Oscar nominations released, it can be strange to view a film as high caliber as A Most Violent Year. Had the film been released earlier, I would have held out for a nomination. Instead, I can only appreciate it for it’s quality, recommend it to others, and use this space to help deconstruct why it works so well.
To start, I’ll note an interesting filmmaking technique that the director JC Chandor described in an interview. He was asked how he prepares to write his films. Now, A Most Violent Year is unapologetically a gangster movie, but not on the bare surface – the story follows Abel Morales, a heating oil salesman trying to expand his business in the face of extreme competition. It just so happens that “competition” means men stealing his trucks at gun-point and rival businessmen cooking their books. Meanwhile, the DA’s office singles Abel out for industry reforming lawsuit and he has one month to close on a property deal that could invigorate his business. The subject matter certainly required a level of research to make the conflict feel real. Chandor said that while some directors prefer to study every notable movie in the genre (The Godfather, Goodfellas, Scarface, et al), he would rather allow the memory of the films to affect his writing rather than construct actual references. It’s this technique that makes A Most Violent Year sit so comfortably amongst the aforementioned films, at once essential and generic, thematically identifiable and yet uniquely focused. Simply put, it’s the best gangster movie for some time.
If all crime movies are really about aspiration, A Most Violent Year carves out its niche on its equal examination of vulnerability. Abel must protect his drivers without engaging in illegal activity. His strenuous insistence on following the law makes him noble. It also makes him weak. He’s simultaneously close to dominance and failure. Thus, the question becomes: what is real power? Should Abel drive out his competitors in an honorable fashion, he’ll have earned the trust of the beleaguered law enforcement. Should his tactics fail, not only is his life in shambles but his philosophy too. In addition to aspiration, I’ll add manhood to the list. Through conversations with his wife, his lawyer, his rivals, and best of all his new salespeople, Chandor reveals Abel’s philosophy on life. Even without a gun in his hand, Abel has the same combination of aggression, pride, and shrewdness that we identify with a mob boss. His attitude is summed up in one trailer-worthy line: “When it feels scary to jump, that is exactly when you jump.” Abel possesses some monster cojones.
Here comes the part of my review where I single out the elements I liked most. Jessica Chastain transforms into Abel’s fearless wife, a perfect match for his tense power. Her performance reinforces the notion that she’s one of the best working actresses today. Albert Brooks (his lawyer) and David Oyelowo (the DA) keep the dryer proceedings running smoothly. The cinematography is reminiscent of The Godfather without being slavish. It also takes the time to establish gritty industrial wastelands as beautiful for their potential if not their aesthetic. The excellent score by Alex Ebert adds perfect grace notes along the way.
To end, I’ll discuss a motif that defines the movie: running. Perhaps an obvious metaphor for unattainable goals (Manhattan gleaming across the river serves this function as well), running also becomes a practical element. The movie contains two bravado chase sequences that crank up the intensity to action movie levels. In addition, the movie is a marathon both for the characters and viewer. Our one month in Abel’s shoes has it’s hills that he must grind through, putting one foot in front of the other. Never has heating oil been so exhausting, or in some ways so rewarding. A Most Violent Year is filmmaking at the highest level.