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Arts & Culture

The Slow Burn Of 'A Most Violent Year'

Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac who star in "A Most Violent Year" are shown embracing in this photo from the movie.
A24 Films
Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac who star in "A Most Violent Year" are shown embracing in this photo from the movie.

NYC and the American Dream

Companion Viewing

Goodfellas” (1990)

Glengarry Glenn Ross” (1992)

Nightcrawler” (2014)

Against the backdrop of New York City and rising violent crime in 1981, a man tries to build a business empire in “A Most Violent Year” (opening Jan. 30 in select San Diego theaters).

“A Most Violent Year” opens with Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac of “Inside Llewyn Davis”) jogging on a winter morning in New York. His focus and determination against the bleak, cold elements set the tone for this gritty and unadorned drama.

Morales is a young heating-company boss trying to carve out some territory in an industry dominated by generations-old family businesses run much like the mob.

Morales started at the bottom as a truck driver and moved up by marrying the boss’ daughter, Anna (Jessica Chastain), and then buying the business from him. He is fueled by an immigrant’s dream of securing the American Dream that was promised, and he is not about to let anything stand in his way.

But unlike Anna’s father, he wants to run the business legitimately. That’s not as easy as it sounds in an industry that seems ingrained with unscrupulous practices.

Morales’ insistence on a squeaky clean approach and a new business model for success doesn’t sit so well with some of his fellow oil merchants.

So while New York City struggles through an all-time high crime rate, Morales is caught up in his own turf war that threatens his business plans. But just as Morales is closing in on a waterfront fuel yard that will put him in control of his own fate, an equally ambitious district attorney (“Selma’s” David Oyelowo) launches an investigation into the heating-industry and targets Morales’ Standard Heating Co.

I watched “A Most Violent Year” twice. The first time in the midst of all the awards screeners I was seeing to vote on critics awards. I admired the film’s craft but it left me cold. Maybe the title set up false expectations.

The film may be set against what was an historically violent year of crime in New York, but the film itself -- even in its violence -- never felt extreme or graphic. When it ended the first time I saw it it struck me like “Goodfellas,” but with all the fire and passion sucked out.

But I kept thinking about it. So I decided to watch it again, away from all the Oscar-bait films that tried so hard to lure votes with tired tropes. And that’s what “A Most Violent Year” doesn’t rely on, tired tropes. Nor does it look to flashy style to win audiences. And on second viewing that’s what I was finally able to appreciate about it.

The film is as tightly reigned in as its protagonist Morales. Unlike the gangsters of Martin Socrsese’s “Goodfellas,” Morales is all about control – even his passion and ambition are tightly controlled. Only on a couple rare occasions does he let his reserve crack to reveal any kind of emotion, and even then he quickly pulls back and resets the polished front he presents to the world.

Amidst all the films that obnoxiously plead for audience love and attention, “A Most Violent Year” puts up an austere front.

Oscar Issac and David Oyelowo star as a businessman and a district attorney locking horns in "A Most Violent Year."
A24 Films
Oscar Issac and David Oyelowo star as a businessman and a district attorney locking horns in "A Most Violent Year."

Director J.C. Chandor (who helmed “All is Lost” in 2013) channels Sidney Lumet as he crafts this New York drama. We constantly hear news reports about crimes happening all around the city but in true New York fashion, there’s not much heed paid to any of that.

I mean, what are you going to do? Life goes on in the big city. The film has a lean beauty, there are no frills in the editing, cinematography, or score. But there is smart writing and acting that create a drama that slowly and slyly pulls you in.

There are brilliant scenes that just stick with you, such as when Morales teaches his new, young sales reps about how to close a deal. In an odd way Morales is not far off from the men of David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glenn Ross” or even Jake Gyllenhaal’s character in “Nightcrawler.” Morales talks with the conviction of someone who has just found religion; there’s a fanaticism or zealotry that fuels him and gives him an uncanny focus that you may find mesmerizing or just a little creepy.

This is also a film where a sense of corruption feels so deeply entrenched that it can’t be removed. Morales likes to set himself apart from it and hid intentions may be genuine but he can’t see how much he really is a part of it. The scenes between him and the DA are superb in their understatement and unstated content.

The cast is stellar.

Isaac rarely lets a single hair get mussed and he conveys a sense of steely determination that proves compelling. Chastain’s Anna is a perfect match for Isaac’s Morales, she may even be tougher than him and definitely she seems more aware of the reality they live in.

The surprise of the film may be Albert Brooks as Morales’ lawyer. Brooks’ performance conveys a sense of casual resignation to how things are combined with a savvy sense of how to play the best angle. He’s great, as he was in “Drive.” This is a comedian who knows how to play it straight without playing it dull (see Steve Carell in “Foxcatcher” for how not to do it and don’t let the Oscar nomination fool you).

The craft in this film is also astonishing but in an unflashy manner.

The cinematography, emphasizing shadows and the coldness of winter sunshine, is stunning in its subtle richness. The editing is clean and elegant too. Everything combines to create a film of vivid but unsensational detail.

“A Most Violent Year” (rated R for language and some violence) is a stark and engrossing drama that has zero levity or warmth. This is serious filmmaking for people who want to think about what they have seen long after they leave the theater.

Check out the short "NYC, 1981" to get some insight about the backdrop of the film.