A Most Violent Year

A Most Violent Year (2015)

dir. J.C. Chandor

starring: Oscar Issac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Albert Brooks

A timely, stylish, and thought-provoking film that attempts to be more than a Godfather retread.  It mostly succeeds.

The heating oil business is a lot like the mafia.  A Most Violent Year would like you to believe that, similar to the mafia, you have to be ruthless and corrupt to get ahead in legitimate business.  The film takes place in New York City, 1981.  A year that has gone on record as the most violent year in New York City.  There’s a feeling of nostalgia that permeates the film.  Not just it being a period film, but the story as well.  Business transactions are done in shadowy rooms, “business” is a dirty word, and there’s a meeting of the dons.  Like Michael Corleone, Abel Morales (Oscar Issac) is trying to grow his business legitimately, but is being thwarted by forces inside and outside his family.

His drivers are being attacked, shipments are stolen, his bankers are threatening leave, and a pesky D.A. (David Oyelowo) is threatening to indict him.  He is being pressured to retaliate with violence from all sides.  Abel refuses to escalate and to conduct business in a civilized manner.  It’s tempting to see him as an example of the failure of “The American Dream”.  For all Abel’s hard-work and ideals, the institutions and the people he trusts fail him.

It is a nice change that his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) is an equal partner in the business and marriage.  Some other critics have compared her to Lady Mac, but that gives the unfair connotation of emasculating shrillness.  She’s shrewd.  The game is rigged and, as a gangster’s daughter, she knows how to win.  Chastain’s light menace is an excellent foil to Issac’s smolder.  She’s cold when he is compassionate.  This opposition is even reflected in the cinematography.  He is literally in the dark during their arguments as he is figuratively in the dark about his own business.

Occasionally, The Godfather similarities overwhelm the film.  The filmmakers aren’t setting out to make a carbon copy of that film, but the feel of the film and the narrative are very familiar.

Recommend: Yes!  Go see this movie, then download the Marvin Gaye song, “inner city blues (make me wanna holler),” that will be stuck in your head after you leave the theater.

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