AFI Fest 2014: A Most Violent Year, and What’s Ahead, by Scott Nye
A Most Violent Year. Not the most violent year. Just one of many; perhaps consecutive, perhaps cyclical. Though it only takes place over a month in the New York winter of 1981 (statistically, one of the most crime-ridden periods in city’s history), writer/director J.C. Chandor’s third film is intensely concerned with the weight of the past, and the allure and danger of the future.
Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) co-owns a heating oil company that he half inherited, half bought from his wife Anna’s (Jessica Chastain) father. She does the books. He does everything else, from training the new sales reps to negotiating property deals to caring for drivers who have been injured on the job. The CB radio in his car ensures he can keep tabs on his entire operation at all times. He prides himself on his professionalism, rarely losing his temper in front of business partners, and on the fact that he doesn’t resort to the gangster practices employed by his late father-in-law, and increasingly by his competitors.
At the opening of the film, three scenes initiate the action that will drive the picture, and test Abel’s fortitude. He and his lawyer, Andrew (Albert Brooks), finalize a deal that will land him a very prominent piece of property, that in turn will give him a considerable edge in his business. Across town, thieves violently steal one of his trucks, and the oil within. Later, Abel meets with a New York district attorney (David Oyelowo) to see what can be done about the increasing violence perpetrated against his business, only to find that the city is bringing considerable charges against him.
J.C. Chandor’s debut film, Margin Call, made a splash in 2011 with its sharply-wrought dialogue and star-studded cast. It was a powerful piece of drama weakened by an uncertain visual hand. His follow-up, last year’s All is Lost, had the opposite problem; an overcooked and mismanaged screenplay, it was Chandor’s much more confident, clear direction that drove it. With A Most Violent Year, Chandor has taken the strengths he honed on those films while enormously stepping up his game, his airtight screenplay emboldened by his newfound sense as a filmmaker that it’s more about the space between the words than the words themselves.
The resulting slow burn, an ever-tightening vice grip around Abel’s neck, makes for damn fine drama, but its investigation into corruption and criminality is what makes it exceptional. Abel constantly tries to position himself apart from the “gangsters” who compete with him, but while he might not resort to their tactics, that doesn’t mean he’s a good guy. His corruption just manifests differently, in a way that will make him suited to the globalized marketplace. Anna is no peach herself. She has a streak of the unpredictable, telling Abel early on that she’ll be there to go the extra mile when he might hesitate. She lives up to it, though not in the way the scene implies. They’re true partners, as driven in their business as they are drawn to one another, even after over a decade together in both arenas. Their boxes of old files manifest the weight of their past decisions; their triumphs, setbacks, and possible sins.
In training sessions, Abel tells the sales people to maintain eye contact with potential customers longer than feels comfortable, a subtle way of pressuring them through quiet confidence. It’s a lesson he employs in his own higher-level dealings. Or tries to, anyway; Isaac understands the distinction, allowing nuances to infect his gaze. Abel knows how to navigate certain rooms, as long as he holds the cards. When caught off guard, his anxiety is more prominent, a slight variation that could only be noticed by those of us privileged to see all these encounters, rounding out a man defined purely by action and behavior, focused at all times on his goals. Anna has different motivations than Abel, and Chastain keeps a spark in her own eyes that hints at potential explosion, desperately hiding her desire to truly be her father’s daughter.
Gorgeously photographed by Bradford Young (Pariah, Middle of Nowhere, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) A Most Violent Year distinguishes itself from so many other period pieces through its color tones (yellow, green, and brown) and modernist approach to the camerawork – very few uses of handheld, some shots so still, they could be frozen. Young’s method complements Chandor’s focus on pauses and quiet, emphasizing the space between people with welcome reliance on wide shots that gather as many people in the frame as possible, cementing their reliance on one another while observing the way they cautiously distance themselves. He photographs the film’s few action scenes with grace and patience, the wide frames allowing the actors’ bodies to provide the thrills. His style is at once generous and rigorous.
Chandor, Young, Isaac, Chastain, and Oyelowo all appeared before the film’s world premiere last night in the legendary Dolby Theatre at AFI Fest 2014 presented by Audi. The Dolby hosts the Academy Awards every year, and this was the first time the festival utilized the space. As an avid Oscar fan, it was all terribly exciting. Chandor spoke briefly about how lucky he feels to tell stories for a living, complimented the cast on their work, and underlined Chastain’s importance in bringing the whole project together (she suggested Isaac for the lead).
AFI Fest runs through November 13th here in Los Angeles. Upcoming screenings include such exemplary films as Tommy Lee Jones’s The Homesman, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s Two Days, One Night (one of the best I’ve seen all year), and Damián Szifrón’s Wild Tales, which I have already reviewed for this site. Other notable screenings include Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, Olivier Assayas’s The Clouds of Sils Maria, Maria Hansen-Løve’s Eden, Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, Rupert Wyatt’s The Gambler (also a world premiere), Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgandy, Lav Diaz’s From What Is Before, Xavier Dolan’s Mommy, and Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, as well as a bevy of independent and foreign films that sound endlessly intriguing (Viktoria, Tu Dors Nicole, and Fish & Cat are the films most catching my eye at this time).
Head over to afi.com/afifest to view the full line-up, and to find information on how to obtain (totally free) tickets. It looks to be an exciting week.