A MOST VIOLENT YEAR. Almost everything about J.C. Chandor's A Most Violent Year is familiar, from the muted colors of 1980s New York City — think Instagram's Perpetua filter — to the unnerving calm of Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), a heating oil magnate with a lot going on. Even the framing of the scenes triggers a sense of déjà vu. Despite this been-here-before sensation — or because of it — the film captivates, and the recognition factor turns out to be an effective tool in setting up expectations only to undo them.
The movie opens with Morales on his morning run as Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)" plays and we are hooked — because even if you're not immediately captivated by the sight of a man jogging through graffiti-covered backdrops, nobody turns a back on Marvin Gaye. As the song continues, we see oil trucks heading for deliveries while, elsewhere, Morales picks up the pace into a sprint until he reaches an invisible finish. This race toward something plays out in other ways — in this case, the something is the American Dream in the guise of a real estate deal critical to Morales' success. Everything is on the line. Again, this is hardly an original plot — man risks everything, faces losing everything, yadda yadda — but something about the sensuality of Isaac's lips, those deceptively lethargic eyes, the way he plays Morales as a man striving to hold on to honor but potentially on the verge of explosion, makes us want to know how this story unfolds.
Given the setting, the time period and the background of his fuel industry rivals, we assume Morales is a gangster or at least likely to end up one — the Michael Corleone comparison is obvious and, it becomes apparent, invited. Unlike his rivals, or his in-laws for that matter, Morales attributes his success to doing things ethically, a fact he emphasizes at every turn. One of the film's strengths lies in the ambiguity surrounding Morales' success. He's married to Anna (Jessica Chastain), the daughter of a Brooklyn mafia boss from whom Morales bought the heating oil company. Morales might pride himself on being above arming his drivers even as his rivals hijack his oil trucks, but the legacy he bought into wouldn't exist if the founders had acted within the law. This disconnect between Morales' sense of self and the reality of the world he resides in is made evident repeatedly: in confrontations with his wife, in discussions with his lawyer (the wonderful Albert Brooks), in clashes with his rivals, most notably second-generation Mafioso Peter Forente (Alessandro Nivolo), and in his relationship with an ambitious assistant district attorney (Selma's David Oyelowo) investigating his company. Morales' penchant for the high road is repeatedly acknowledged and just as often dismissed as irrelevant in the context of how business is done. "I'm sorry," everyone shrugs.
Morales' insistence on holding to exacting standards results in some tragic consequences for his workers, guys who are just trying to do their job and get by. This muddies the answer to the question, "What is right?" As the tension heightens and the threats to his business, family and company increase, we wait for Morales to finally chuck aside his morality — because that's what we've come to expect. Therein lies the beauty of A Most Violent Year. Instead of The Godfather redux or a throwback Sopranos — both too excellent to justify knockoffs — what we get is a film that examines the effects of compromise, whether we accept or refuse it, and questions the ways in which we hold on to our own notions of ourselves. Is Morales the noble man he believes he is? Or is he guilty of ignoring inconvenient facts that might tarnish his self-image? It's a credit to the filmmakers that we're kept guessing and an even greater credit that the portrayal of this fictional character might make us examine ourselves. What better recommendation can you give a film than to say the themes bleed over into one's own life, inspire discussion and self-examination? To take the right path is what guides Morales' decisions, for better or worse, and there's no end of conversation to be had about what that means. R. 125m.
— Jennifer Savage
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