A MOST VIOLENT YEAR begins, appropriately enough, with its protagonist, Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) running. Though this is merely jogging through the snowy landscape of 1981 New York, he will spend the rest of the film running more purposefully either literally, figuratively, or both, as he scrambles to overcome fate and the fickleness of human nature in order to achieve the American Dream. Written and directed by J. C. Chandor, the man behind ALL IS LOST and MARGIN CALL, this is a tense film that plays a mystery/thriller and as a lesson in ethics in the real world. These elements coalesce seamlessly, with Abel’s determination to do the ethical thing in a constant battle with expediency with neither element having the upper hand.
Abel is a self-made man trying to turn his moderately successful heating-oil business into a major entity. In order to make that happen, he has staked his life savings on a parcel of land that will allow him to expand geometrically. As the film opens, he has the backing of his bank, with whom he has done business since he first bought his company from his wife’s father, backing that continues even when the local DA (David Oyelowo) warns him that an indictment is coming down on Abel from the DA’s office. Abel is more concerned about the hijacking of his trucks, and the beating of one of his drivers, Julian (Elyes Gabel), a fellow immigrant like himself in whom he sees himself.
What was once an orderly climb to the top of the economic ladder slowly becomes an obstacle course as the local teamster boss (Peter Gerety) insists that Abel arm his drivers or he will pull them from their routes, his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), wants to get her father and her brothers involved in Old Testament-style retribution, and his lawyer (Albert Brooks) is revealing secrets that he should have confided to Abel years before. One fatal moment of weakness by another threatens to bring down everything Abel has worked for, giving him three days to change his fate without violating his personal code.
At the center of A MOST VIOLENT YEAR is a powerful performance by Isaac. It is richly layered, satisfyingly complex, and never less than
riveting as the inner instinct for violence is subsumed without question by Abel’s carefully cultivated façade of tailored suites and immaculately groomed hair and nails. Subsumed, but never gone. As Abel, he is a man who can only move forward, who can make peace with compromise as long as it takes him to his goal. Ruthlessness is a tool, not a choice, and ego has no place in doing what will get him what he wants. In a film full of moments worthy of a master class, I want to single one sequence out to sum up why Isaac and the film are so good. It is a chase, starting in a car and ending on foot with Abel chasing down the one person who can give him the information he needs. Virtually wordless (shades of Chandor’s ALL IS LOST), as Abel pursues his target, he goes through every emotion, his mind working at lightning speed to keep up and then overtake the man who hijacked his truck. The emotional turmoil is as exhausting as the running, and the denouement as stunning for its adherence to the man’s character as it is for the twist that validates his philosophical choices. Chandor wisely keeps the camera focused on Isaac’s face for the most part, using establishing shots sparingly, forcing us to live these desperate minutes with Abel, and becoming part of them ourselves.
Chandor’s literate, engrossing script puts Abel through that obstacle course with lessons to be learned in moments of desperation, mercy,
confrontation, and love. He’s also written one of the most interesting female characters of 2014, and cast one of the most brilliant actresses in the role. Chastain and Isaac are a fascinating pair, mutual respect, almost absolute trust, and a commitment to each other and their dreams that is palpable. She is tough enough to stand up to Abel or anyone else for that matter, and to sport a brazen decollatage at a formal dinner with bankers, and still force them to take her seriously when she talks business. The drama isn’t in whether this couple will stay together, it’s how they will negotiate their future relationship and if only for that reason, the putative sequels to this film are something I anticipate with rapturous delight.
At the end of A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, Abel expounds briefly, as a befits a man of action, on his philosophy of life. It is to take the most right path. It is the philosophy of a man of honor, but one who has accepted the real world for what it is. And has accepted the struggle to walk that path. There is no better precis on the real meaning of Machiavelli’s writings to be found in either popular culture or academia, and certainly ot better film of 2014 than this.