In Which Jessica Chastain Resembles A Dinner Mint

Standard Oil


A Most Violent Year
dir. J.C. Chandor
121 minutes

Oscar Isaac usually looks like a bunch of rolled up newspapers. Not here. As Abel Morales, the owner of a growing heating oil company in 1981 New York City, he moves swifty and surely through his muted world. In A Most Violent Year Abel never once makes a false move or second guesses himself; he has no idea what a crisis of conscience even is. Once, he gets slightly upset that his wife’s handgun reminds him of a weapon a prostitute would use to protect herself. Other than that, he never alters his expression from a steely, viscous meow.

The world that revolves around Morales is filled with character actors of various ability: a menopausal Albert Brooks, a tense Alessandro Nivola and Glenn Flesher fresh off his role in True Detective. None offers much in the way of an antagonist. The closest thing to that is the prosecutor played by a masterful David Oyelowo, whose only scene with Jessica Chastain has all the romantic chemistry that Isaac and the dinner mint that is JC lack.

It seems unkind to shit on J.C. Chandor (Margin Call, All Is Lost) for making an exceedingly subtle movie in an environment where such machinations are lost on viewers used to television hammering home every single plot point. More happens in fifteen minutes of Boardwalk Empire than in the entire running time of A Most Violent Year. Unfortunately, nothing much lurks behind the subtlety of A Most Violent Year; there is instead a serious lack of emphasis on anything except the indifferent virtuism with which Morales regards the awful place he calls his home.

Morales has been the victim of about ten oil robberies when A Most Violent Year begins. The film concerns his search for the individuals that stole his trucks, as well as his desire to secure money to purchase a facility on the East River after his bank drops out of the funding to pressure from his competitors and the government.

Morales’ wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) keeps the books. Chastain accomplishes her usual effortless job of slipping into the skin of another human being, but she is really given quite little to do here. (She does not even get nude once.) Anna tells Abel that if he will not protect his family from the people that are hurting them, she will. In this:

In one particularly on-the-nose scene, unusual for the film, Chastain gets out of their car to execute a deer that they have accidentally injured. She shoots several times to be sure of the animal’s death, as her husband looks on in horror. Anna is the daughter of a prominent Brooklyn gangster, and the concept of guilt by association that hovers at the margins of A Most Violent Year is never fully explored.

Hints are all we get. They paint a picture of a corrupt industry in which collusion and underhanded practices threaten the lives of anyone who challenges the preexisting power structure. This view is likely accurate – it is, however, neither eye-opening or very much fun. It is difficult to know exactly who A Most Violent Year is aimed at, situated on the median between period piece and industrial thriller. It is not particular gritty, but it is gloomy. Waking up from Chandor’s film feels like drawing your head quickly out of a water bucket.

“I feel like I haven’t seen the girls in days,” Morales complains about his two young daughters.  One of them finds a gun in the bushes of their house, dropped by a would-be assailant. The magazine is loaded and the safety is off. We could have more than a few seconds with this moment, but instead we never even find out Abel’s daughter’s name. Her parents are too concerned with larger matters. In this world there is only one aspect of self that is ever worth paying attention to, and that is how it is projected on others, or conversely, violated by them.

Morales remains untarnished by the vanity, greed and idolatry he experiences in this version of New York City. The other world lingers at the outskirts of his, more peaceful by far. Eventually, we assume, there will be  lessening, a weakness, a lack of functioning in that intensity. That moment never arrives.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.

“Song to the Siren” – Amen Dunes (mp3)


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