A Most Violent Year (A24, R)

most violent_75It’s being marketed as something of a Goodfellas type of throwback, which isn’t far off the mark, but for the most part all of the violence has been stripped away, and the 80s aesthetic and decadence is what remains.

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Just a few weeks back I was writing about my suspicion that Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice was not the movie most people were going to want it to be, even though I thought it was great. And now here we are with J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year, and I am prepared to say the exact same thing: I liked it, but I don’t think it’s the film its viewers are going to want it to be. Maybe January is becoming something of a dumping ground for that type of film.

Chandor is the writer/director behind 2011’s Margin Call, which I thought was okay but pretty overrated, and 2013’s All Is Lost, which I thought was close to bad and again quite overrated. A Most Violent Year is easily his most solid film yet, but I’m guessing he still has his best film in front of him.

The reason I expect audiences to dislike A Most Violent Year is because, well, it isn’t all that violent. It’s being marketed as something of a Goodfellas type of throwback, which isn’t far off the mark, but for the most part all of the violence has been stripped away, and the 80s aesthetic and decadence is what remains.

Indeed, the story is set in 1981 New York City, and our main character, Abel Morales (Inside Llewyn Davis’ Oscar Isaac, who’s good in everything he does), is the only honest seller of heating oil in the city. (Heating oil? Honest? This isn’t what I signed up for!) What that means, though, is he’s constantly the target of attacks from his competitors—it’s like being the only Amish guy in prison. Despite this, Abel is smart and a good businessman, but the wildcard in the equation is his gun moll-type wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain, also good in everything she does), who is literally a mobster’s daughter in the world of the film.

So that’s what this movie boils down to: a period piece set in the seedy version of thirty years ago New York, and recreating the pervasive vibe of corruption and greed of the Reagan years. The movie gets its title from the fact that 1981 is NYC’s most violent year on record; it’s what Abel has to deal with in his struggle to succeed. And, while honest, Abel’s hardly an angel—he’s a pretty cutthroat businessman, and just because he doesn’t rob and steal doesn’t mean he can’t fend for himself.

Another good reason to see this film is that it reteams David Oyelowo and Bradford Young, the star and cinematographer of Selma, both of whom have been doing exciting work. Oyelowo plays an assistant D.A. on Abel’s case, but it’s Young’s camerawork here that is particularly stunning. While 2014 will likely be remembered as Young’s breakthrough year, he’s already recognizable to those who have been paying attention—he also did great work on films such as Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Middle of Nowhere, and Pariah in recent years. | Pete Timmermann

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