film: a most violent year

A Most Violent Year was mostly passed over for awards, yet it is a better film about business ethics than anything Martin Scorsese has done lately. Oscar Isaac plays Abel Morales, the self-made chief executive of a heating oil business, as he teeters on the edge of a deal that should give him a dominating edge over competitors. Not coincidentally, men with guns have started menacing him and his employees. Isaac shows the intensity of a real movie star as he weighs his options; as with Clooney and Pacino, you could happily sit all day watching him stare at things and maybe tighten one involuntary muscle. This was not predictable from Inside Llewyn Davis.

As one reviewer noted [1], the pace is slow but never dull, and there’s plenty of suspense in director J.R. Chandor’s script: Is Morales as moral as he wants to be? What is the difference between discretion and cowardice, valor and responsibility for others? Is his wife (Jessica Chastain) an uncredited partner – she has a different point of view on how self-made he is – or an alter ego to whom he can outsource guilt? Who, if anyone, is playing a double game? What’s the agenda for the DA (David Oyewolo, also doing the full movie star), and the company counsel (Albert Brooks, along for the ride)? You might make thematic links with Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan, the Russian entry for this year’s Oscars, in which a little guy who has a single valuable property struggles to keep it in an envious and corrupt world.

The knife edges are framed by Selma cinematographer Bradford Young in understated, disciplined shots that seem to reflect the protagonist’s habits of thought. Time and place are fuzzy but the establishing shots and office equipment peg it as the tri-state area roughly between 1978 and 1988 [2]. As usual with white-collar malfeasance stories, there are plot holes, but not absurd ones. The final action is not overdetermined, though Morales’s reaction may be, and the coda made me wish for the following subtitle: END OF PART 1.

[1] Brett Arnold, Business Insider via the W thing.
[2] At least one scene driven by Chastain gestures to Michelle Pfeiffer’s performance in Married to the Mob (1988).

Posted on by Diana ben-Aaron
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