Director: JC Chandor
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola, Elyes Gabel, Albert Brooks
Rating: ****1/2 (out of *****)
Length: 125 minutes
Plot: Abel Morales is a Colombian immigrant who has chased the ‘American Dream’ to its peak. Working his way up to owning and running a yet expanding oil business, Morales sees only more ground ahead to take as he runs determinedly towards his goals … until robbers start to hijack his trucks and steal his oil in what seems to be deliberate sabotage attempts. Amidst these unprovoked attacks and an industry investigation that threatens to tear apart everything he had built, A Most Violent Year examines one man’s relentless push against the odds, fuelled by his unwavering belief in the righteousness of his path.
DIRECTOR and scriptwriter JC Chandor confessed in an interview with The Guardian that he is a man fascinated by people’s reaction to pressure. This forms the basis of A Most Violent Year, essentially an immersive observation of Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), as his back draws increasingly closer to the wall.
It is set in 1981, statistically one of the most crime-ridden years of New York City’s history, and it is against this backdrop that the film hones in on one man, his family and his business. Having come up from being just a truck driver to a successful example of capitalism, Morales carries that quiet but assured confidence in what he has built, yet keeps the hunger of an immigrant dreaming of success, which is a contrast to his counterparts, many of whom inherited their family-run oil businesses.
Playing over a short, specific period within the story, which serves to build and intensify the experience, the film is the antithesis of fast-paced action (judging from the not-too-subtle snores heard on the aisle next to mine, not everyone likes the slow-simmer style of cinema), though the tension builds steadily and increasingly at a good pace.
Chandor’s focus instead is on letting the reactions and decisions of the character run their course, framed but wide open within that, prompting questions such as — “Is he a good guy or a villain?”, “What is he going to do next?”.
As for plot, Chandor takes us to unfamiliar territory, where it would be tough to guess what Morales is going to do in keeping the “right” path he says he is trying to follow.
Therein lies the brilliance of this story and film, one keenly observed and sublimely executed, supported no less by Isaac’s convincingly intense and vulnerable performance. His wife, played by Jessica Chastain in another solid performance, providing the conflict and contrast both in nature of character (she is the daughter of a gangster) and decisions that added to the suspense: Is he as upright as he so determinedly tries to prove?
At the end of the day, Abel Morales invites us to explore what is right and wrong, and just when it seems the “right” triumphs, we step off from Morales’ unwavering journey to his intended result, only to ask that same question: “Is he the good guy or a villain?”
This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on January 22, 2015.