It’s rough out there for a oil salesman.
Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is an honest man, trying to make an honest living, with an honest wife (Jessica Chastain), and an honest family. However, during the winter of 1981 in New York City, that’s a lot easier said then done. Because once Abel makes a deal with a local money-launderer, everybody around Abel who either loathes or envies him, don’t want him to pay any of that money back. Instead, they want Abel to go broke, get found out by the cops, and possibly even dead. Though, the problem for Abel isn’t that it seems like everybody’s coming after him, and only him, it’s that he doesn’t who it is, nor does he want to stoop to their levels of violence, murder, and corruption. He believes he is better and doesn’t want to dirty-up his business one bit. But now that the cops are hot on his tail, Abel believes that it may be time to step up and defend his business, or become what everybody around him wants him to become – a goner.
Sometimes, it’s incredibly easy to classify a movie as what it seems to be, or better yet, actually sounds like. For instance, A Most Violent Year is the kind of movie that looks and sounds like that it would be another violent gangster-pic in the same vein as a Scorsese flick. Heck, it even has the word “violent” in its title, so how could it not have people whacking one another?
Well, sometimes, looks can be deceiving, kids. While that usually means something bad for movies that look good and end up turning out to be junk, here, we’ve got something different – a movie that may seem like it’s chock full of bloody violence and action, actually isn’t. Sure, there’s the occasional gun-fight, or chase through the streets, but they don’t feel thrown in there for the sake of livening up the proceedings; instead, what writer/director J.C. Chandor does best is that he allows them to flow smoothly into the story, and make it seem pertinent. That this is a story of a man who’s trying to keep him, his family, and his business strictly clean and legal, makes it all the more understanding that, when push comes to shove, he can’t help but loose control a bit and take all sorts of drastic decisions.
And that’s mostly where Chandor’s flick stays to talk about; it’s not whether one can stay afloat with their business, it’s that they can do so without having to become one with the rest of the wild and rowdy pack you are sometimes grouped-in together with. It’s an interesting dilemma that Chandor poses with his protagonist and for the story as a whole, but it never actually loses steam. Instead, it keeps us guessing as to whether or not this lead character is going to lose his cool, and if so, how so and at one costs. We don’t want to see him have to be forced to kill anybody, but if he has to, we hope that he does so at a reasonable level that doesn’t put him, or anybody that he loves in harm’s way.
As you can tell, it’s not just an interesting dilemma for the lead character, but for us, the audience, as well.
The parts where I do feel that Chandor as the story lose a bit of steam, is when it seems like he’s being as vague as humanly possible, only to throw us for more curveballs, but to also remind us that his movie isn’t like other crime-thrillers out there. A good portion of that is true, but when it comes to making a gripping, interesting-to-listen-to thriller, you have to give the audience enough details and bits of info to allow for them to draw their own conclusions. You don’t have to spell everything out in big, bold letters and practically hold the audiences hand, but when it seems like you’re not going further into detail about a certain aspect of the story, it seems like you’re cheating the audience out of what could be an even more engaging tale.
That said, Chandor, in my humble opinion, is a director who is three-for-three. Which is even more of an impressive feat considering that the two other movies he’s created (Margin Call, All is Lost) are all completely different from one another. Call was talky and almost Mamet-like; Lost was a Cast Away-ish tale of one character, and one character only; and this one here, is a moral, crime tale, that seems like something Sidney Lumet would have made and been quite proud of. If there is one similarity between all three of these movies, however, it’s that they all feature desperate people, in some very tragic situations, who are trying their hardest to survive by any means necessary. They may not always make the smartest decisions, but they are at least trying to save their own head.
And that’s the exact case with Abel Morales, played to perfection by the always powerful Oscar Isaac. With Morales, we get a character that we like, if only because of what he stands for; he’s an immigrant who came over to this land, to create his own business, and get what each and everyone of us want, “the American Dream”. So already, he’s winning points with us, but once we see him starting to get all sorts of pushed and pulled by these local gangsters that are practically suffocating him, then it’s obvious to see that we may be losing him a tad bit. He’s not just losing his sense of morality, but he also might lose the dream he set-out for himself and it’s hard to fully root for him with the actions he commits. Then again, there’s also the sense that it’s all for a good cause and it puts this character into perspective as to whether he’s a good guy, or a bad one.
Mostly though, it comes down to him just being a guy, trying to make a living for himself, and those that he loves. That’s it.
Isaac is wonderful in this role and has you totally believe in the constant struggle he goes through with this character. Isaac plays both sides of this character very well in that we never quite know whether he wants to be apart of this bloody, violent underground, or not. All we do know is that his intentions are good enough that makes it easy for us to root for him, even when we don’t know if we’re not supposed to. Once again, Isaac is great at showing these dueling-sides to this character and always has you on-edge, wondering when he’s going to turn the other cheek and how.
Another great performance here is from Jessica Chastain as Abel’s mob-daughter wife, Anna. As great of an actress as Chastain may be, for some reason, I just didn’t know if I could fully believe in her as an Italian, New York-housewife; this isn’t to say that I’m doubting her talents, I just don’t know if she’d been able to pull it of well enough to where we’d see more to her than just the act of what a stereotypical, Italian-woman looks, acts, and sounds like. Thankfully though, I was proven wrong as Chastain absolutely owns this role and allows us to see her as less of an accessory in Abel’s life, and more of a factor in the reason as to why he is as successful as he is. She constantly pushes him further than he could ever imagine and when he needs her the most, she’s there, sometimes, with nearly as much fire-power as he. I don’t want to call her a Lady Macbeth-like character, but she pretty much is; just not nearly as corny as that kind of role was for Laura Linney in Mystic River.
Ugh. So bad.
Anyway, while these two are incredibly solid in these roles, there’s plenty more where they came from, with each and every character still seeming as interesting, and as thought-provoking as they could be. For instance, the character of Lawrence, the detective who is constantly behind every corner Abel and his business turns down, may seem like he’ll be just as dirty and as corrupt as the people he’s going after, but more or less, stays true to himself or any kind of code that he may have set out for himself as a cop. Sure, David Oyelowo is quite solid in this role, but he’s also helped-out quite a bunch by the writing for this role, that doesn’t have him act like the standard-version of a cop we see in these kinds of movies; he goes by-the-badge, but also doesn’t forget about certain aspects of the job that may need to be looked at a bit differently. He’s not a bad, or immoral person; he’s just a person. With his own needs, hopes and desires.
As we all are.
Consensus: Exciting without ever over-exploding, thought-provoking without being too obvious, and well-acted without a weak-link, A Most Violent Year is a solid crime-thriller that asks hard questions of both its characters, as well as its audience.
8.5 / 10 = Matinee!!
The perfect, Reagan-era couple.
Photo’s Credit to: Goggle Images