Slow-moving and gritty,”A Most Violent Year” will stay with you even if you don’t care about egos trying to succeed in a gangster controlled industry. Almost chiaroscuro lit and dotted with illumination from curtained natural light, filtered hearth fire, soft candlelight,swaying lamps,porch lights and headlamps, each dark frame keeps faces and fixtures in shadow and shade. Nothing is clear and the glaze of sootiness is poured over everything but the Armani outerwear worn by the married protagonists. In fact,Oscar Isaac’s camel-haired coat becomes a symbol of pressurized striving.Jessica Chastain’s tightly belted white wool one shows a woman in control.
Writer and director J.C. Chandor has a better film here than his previous “All Is Lost”. He still leaves much of the meaning to the viewer. And I feel more guidance could deepen the 1981 NYC crime -ridden year to a questioning of unbridled capitalism’s dangers. The final song,”America For Me”,ironically toys with this view. In fact, the use of music and the use of silence is as beautifully done in this film as is Bradford Young’s cinematography. The urban photographer,Jamel Shabazz’s photos of graffitied sub-stations and railroad tunnels and mottled urban corners are said to have inspired Bradford and Chandor. It works :for when those long shots of NYC or those suburban home interiors are framed, the movie’s heart is felt. Does it take grime and crime to capture the American Dream?
The double briefcase carrying Abel Morales is learning about Federal graft ,as well ;and his tag line “we set the standards” takes on fitting nuances. Abel is mugged where he lives,yet he believes he has “chased them and they are not coming back.” Abel is learning from his “Eve”,too. Anna says “we follow every industry practice”,and she then hides the company’s boxed records from the Feds during a daughter’s twelve -year old -birthday party. Anna states without a flutter, “my husband is an honorable man”. Compared to her father, he just may be.
The climatic scene with Abel’s favorite driver, Julian, is metaphor-driven for we expect to see blood spouting,and we see oil cascading from its dike-like tanker instead. Abel plugs the gunshot hole, and we know before he says anything that he is “afraid of failure more than anything else.”The storyline is “God-father” -like without the violent pulpiness.A Mafia -linked wife undercuts the stronger moral fiber of her husband by skimming from their own company as insurance for that “rainy day” she knows will come. He prefers to believe that his charm and positive mini-lectures will push their oil transit business to the top. Chastain ,as the mollish wife, emasculates her husband in two scenes. One involves the killing of a deer and the other when their youngest child is playing with a loaded gun. The pressure is intense. Jessica Chastain plays Anna as threatening,calculating, demanding and hard. A fourteen count government indictment in a business her husband bought from her father could see,too,that Anna has been rigging the scales. Wife as bookkeeper with connections is risky, especially as long as Morales keeps the motto “We set the standard” so close to his heart.
There are lots of crooks in this film. There are lots of bullies.Competitors are stealing 600 thousand gallons of heating fuel from company tankers weekly. Their drivers are shot at and their marketing people beaten. The question of why Morales is in this business surfaces again and again. Everybody is running,but this time it is not the wintery forays of the committed jogger. Morales who would not have a gun in his home,picks a dropped one up and chases one bandit over tracks and through tunnels,falls and never sullies his camel-hair coat. He pistol whips the goon,but lets him go when he gives up the name of the boss who hired him. Morales understands the industry is a mess, but he needs to see himself as a caped crusader. What path does it take to “get there”,the right one ? Can Abel Morales be a serious,caring employer amidst such decay? The viewer knows there will be a lot more running, a lot more broken jaws. The question is why.
Something must be said about the musical score. The twelve tone scale is used to perfection in building up the pressure Morales feels. Intermitant use of redolent music is arresting. The audience notices. Musical director Alex Ebert’s name needs to be remembered and watched for and lauded. The final song ” America For Me” burns with bright irony. The Philip Glass -like twelve tone interludes afix the dramatic tension. This film made me think about something I thought I did not care about. Good work J.C. Chandor and crew.