A Most Violent Year Ends 2014 With A Bitter Bang

amvy_day6-219.CR2While the title A Most Violent Year is certainly eye-catching and provocative, it also might end up being an unfortunate curse on the film it’s attached to. It really only describes the background of this low-key, calmly restrained struggle for legitimacy and success, that is suggested much more than it is shown. Through that title, and recurring radio news updates about violent crime throughout the film, we see the world that Abel and Anna Morales want to escape and rise above. This New York City of 1981 is a world of danger and desperation, a horrible time and place not to be on top of the heap. The title, and everything it suggests, is ultimately just context for the story of Abel and Anna Morales, and the people they leave in their wake.

A Most Violent Year, like most films, operates on three major levels, which combined add up to a complete and distinctive picture. The most obvious level is aesthetic, and on this level alone the film is a stunning success. The cinematography of Bradford Young, with his second great effort in as many weeks (after Selma) is crisp and clear, with imagery that shifts from Godfather-esque blacks and golds to Dog Day Afternoon-style tangibility. But no matter what different nuances are brought to each scene, all of it screams New York City. This is further amplified by the old-school brass score from Alex Ebert, the kind of music I wish just naturally played in my head when I wander Manhattan and Queens. These aesthetic choices usually don’t register at this level for me, but in this case they are so perfectly matched with the setting and subject that I can’t help but bring special attention to them. With this sort of aesthetic specificity in hand, the period NYC setting is drawn all the more clearly. It’s a city that can look beautiful and ugly, optimistic and sinister, and the combination of visuals and music frames that dichotomy perfectly.

With the two-faced nature of this cinematic New York firmly established, there’s the thematic arc to consider. A Most Violent Year is a fable of the American Dream, but rather than being a story of someone wanting to achieve it at any cost, it’s about a man who wants the dignity of reaching the top clean. Abel doesn’t want to be a gangster; he doesn’t want to get his hands dirty and use strong-arm tactics to get where he knows he’s going. He’s worked his way up from the bottom, and while his company might have come to him through his criminal in-laws, he sees nothing but a legitimate future. It infuriates him that others in his industry are resorting to gutter-level action, not just because of the resulting attention from law enforcement but because he fears it may require him to take the sort of steps he has always wanted to avoid. And in the end, while Abel may not have to submit to the challenge of criminality the way he fears, he is still confronted with the fact that no one gets as big as he wants to be without some tragedy and bloodshed along the way. The question is, how do you keep that danger in check?

That question brings us to the emotional core of the story, the relationship dynamic that drives the entire film: the marriage of Abel and Anna. This relationship ultimately personifies the thematic struggle of A Most Violent Year. Abel is a dreamer, a big-picture guy, who knows where he wants to be but hasn’t considered the individual steps and challenges in his path. Anna, on the other hand, is far more pragmatic. While Abel assumes that there is a way for them to reach the mountaintop without sacrifice or compromise, Anna- the daughter of a gangster, the sister of a gangster- knows that sometimes you have to take risks and do the dirty work to make things happen for yourself. Abel may have the dreams, but Anna is the one that keeps her eye on what’s right in front of them. It makes the two of them a great team, but one that is destined to suffer some internal strife here and there, as Abel’s desire for integrity clashes with Anna’s decisive action. This is all brought to vivid life by Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain, who play both sides of this dramatic equation with honesty and charisma aplenty.

A Most Violent Year is not a particularly high-energy film, or the most action-packed. It is a spare, slow-paced drama, but one that tackles the pursuit of the American Dream in very precise and effective terms. It is a steady exercise in tension, in a way that reflects the constant pressures of adult ambition. JC Chandor’s film reminds us that no great success can happen without some sort of sacrifice or compromise, and that any attempt to avoid that will only raise the price you’ll have to pay.

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