Film titles as with book titles can tempt or dissuade a would-be audience member. Simply the words within A Most Violent Year directed by J. C. Chandor conjured grotesque images I had years ago from reading reviews about A History of Violence (2005). Yet, supportive and urging headlines from the likes of Eric Kohn at Indiewire had me reassess my initial hesitation. When my friend presented film options one evening, I braced myself for A Most Violent Year to be seen and set in NYC.
Unfortunate gender conventions were challenged. As has been evident, the spate of male anti-hero television (Breaking Bad, True Detective, etc.) has honed the eye and ear for imitators. Certainly not all anti-heroes used female characters as cardboard cut-outs (i.e., Anna Gunn in Breaking Bad), but the easy narrative construction is to neglect the female voice and presence. Tropes of men striving for power at the expense of family and decency is not a new trend. Notably for this piece, The Godfather (1972), Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995), and Scarface (1983) have done little to elevate this notion. The woman characters solely exude sexual potency with the risk of betrayal. Consider Sharon Stone in Casino or Scarface‘s Michelle Pfeiffer in how the memory sketches their image. They are rarely their own person. The fault lies in the screenplay and adaptation. Pfeiffer and Stone have proven their acting ranges in other films. Perhaps, because A Most Violent Year took another approach, I found myself more attentive to the rhythms among the characters. Oscar Nominated Zero Dark Thirty‘s Jessica Chastain as Anna Morales is resolutely no one’s doll or decoration. She manages the accounting books for her husband, Abel Morales (the wonderful Oscar Isaac) at Standard Oil. The film reveals that her father had owned the business previously, but her husband had taken the reigns ostensibly. While Abel would like to run a harmonious company in spite of the turmoil, Anna chooses preparation, and when necessary, action.
The couple’s moments together are not spoiled by gratuitous sex scenes that would emphasize her body; instead, their interactions demonstrate two equals not only problem solving, but sharing what pitfalls have arisen. The partnership has trust. Anna conveys the weight of various threats to her husband, and he absorbs the feedback. Abel will act in a manner befitting his character and ethos, but Anna protects him from his own limitations. Abel is not diminished by his formidable wife either. His business creativity and survival are enhanced by her participation. Chandor has rattled the status quo cages.
The main plot of the film revolves about a desired oil port and storage area that would wholly crown one competitor as the most profitable and enduring. Fulfilling the contract terms causes the tension and forces intersections with many rivals. Abel Morales’s adherence to his principles are accosted again and again. Menace rather than outright murder rampages plague the car and door frames. Violence is rationed and felt more resoundingly in this controlled manner. New York City in 1981 still had the muted browns and fashionable flare of the 70s, yet a grittiness is seeping. Political calculation and strange bedfellows hopelessly intertwine.
Before this post becomes a tome, I’ll say A Most Violent Year nourished this cinemaphile in unexpected ways, and I encourage a trip to the theaters.