The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


A Most Violent Year

Many filmmakers experience a sophomore jinx, but I believe in a “junior jinx.” The third movie in a director's career is where they either establish the artistic consistency that will make them important, or they reveal the limitations that will hold them back. (Wes Anderson's third film was The Royal Tenenbaums, and Quentin Tarantino's was Jackie Brown, whereas Michael Cimino's third film was Heaven's Gate.) J.C. Chandor studiously avoids the junior jinx with A Most Violent Year, his third, and best, film, which comes on the heels of the terrific Margin Call and All Is Lost.

Set in 1981, the movie stars Oscar Isaac as Abel Morales, an immigrant who founded a successful oil trucking company in New York City. It's a dirty business, both literally and figuratively. Competition is tough, and someone has been sending armed goons to hold up Abel's trucks and steal his oil. The union representative wants him to allow the drivers to carry weapons for their own protection, but he refuses. Abel wants his company to maintain the (mostly) reputable image he's worked so hard to build. Guns go against that. So does engaging in the same sort of illegal tactics. As more and more thefts occur – and as people start to get hurt – his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), urges him to do whatever it takes to halt the loss of product and keep the cash flowing in.

A movie about oil trucking may not sound like obvious material for a thriller, but A Most Violent Year makes it work. The film explores the difficulties inherent in trying to stay honest when the world around you is becoming increasingly corrupt. Abel knows that most of his competitors break the rules. He's willing to bend them just a little, but that's it. His moral compass tells him that he will lose some sense of honor if he stoops to their level of thievery and intimidation. The tension in the movie comes from watching him try to maintain this stance as circumstances make it harder and harder to do. With his product being stolen repeatedly, and with drivers threatening to walk off the job due to very real safety concerns, Abel has to find a way to avoid crippling financial loss without resorting to the unethical tactics he detests. Anna adds to the pressure. She has firm beliefs about what he should do. Not listening to her creates a problem within the marriage that is as troubling as the problem in the business.

A Most Violent Year is a morality tale, told with grace and insight. Step by step, complication by complication, Chandor shows how challenging it can be to hold on to one's ideals when the playing field is being made un-level by others. Through careful plotting that continually cranks up the pressure Abel faces, the film paints a compelling portrait of a man with his back against the wall. The surest solution is also the worst, but the best option probably leads to entrepreneurial doom. What starts off as the story of a guy trucking oil turns into a treatise on the slippery slope into immorality.

Oscar Isaac is flawless as Abel. Following his equally superb turn in last year's Inside Llewyn Davis, Isaac is quickly establishing himself as an actor of great skill and range. Abel, even under great stress, presents with an air of calm and control. Isaac lets the character keep that front, while also making clear the panic and fear hiding just behind its surface. Jessica Chastain is every bit as good. In some respects, Anna is a stock character: the wife/girlfriend who seems to be only peripherally interested in things but is actually ruthlessly driven when the chips are down. (As just the first example that springs to mind, Cameron Diaz played a similar role in The Counselor.) Nonetheless, Chastain brings an unexpected fierceness to the role. Anna, deep down, believes Abel is a coward for not taking a tougher stance against his adversaries. Scenes between the two stars have palpable tension as they bring to life a uniquely troubled marriage.

There are many other wonderful things about A Most Violent Year, including atmospheric cinematography that makes the filthy oil business look beautiful in its griminess, and several magnificently staged sequences. A tracking shot of a man running for his life on a crowded on-ramp is especially effective, as is a foot chase between Abel and a suspect in one of the thefts. Everything about this picture fires on all cylinders, in fact. I was thoroughly absorbed from start to finish.

A Most Violent Year, which has the gritty feel of a great 1970's Sidney Lumet thriller, isn't afraid of complexities, and it isn't afraid to make things hard on its protagonist. There are no easy answers here. And perhaps that's the most admirable thing about it. Chandor knows that, when you're involved in a dirty game, there's no way to keep your hands completely clean. The question is, how dirty do you let them become?

( out of four)

A Most Violent Year is rated R for language and some violence. The running time is 2 hours and 5 minutes.

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