Last year’s Robert Redford flick “All Is Lost” illustrated a different take on silent films and how writer/director J.C. Chandor knew how to use silence. There’s plenty of silence in “A Most Violent Year” and even a lesson in how to use silence to your advantage. the movie itself, starring Oscar Isaac as Abel Morales, uses silence to contrast the moments of graphic violence and he constructs a meditative movie about morality and violence.
There must be some meaning to the name Abel Morales. Morales means morals (la moral o moralidad which is different from the moral or message–moraleja) in Spanish. Abel makes me think of the Biblical Cain and Abel, but also what seems to be the theme of this movie: Is one able to keep one’s morals in the face of violence. For those non-Christians who aren’t familiar with the story, Abel means “breathing spirit” and he was a shepherd who was killed by his brother Cain out of jealousy. Abel had offered a lamb to God while Cain had offered the fruits of the earth. Of these two sons of Adam and Eve, Cain becomes the first murderer and Abel becomes the first murder victim, a martyr to some. Although Chandor’s story isn’t biblical, I couldn’t help but wonder, What kind of blood offering does Abel give?
Chandor takes us back to New York City in the winter of 1981, what is, we are told, the most historically violent year in the city’s history. The camera follows a man running through what looks to be a warehouse district. We see few people, but a lot of grafitti. There’s a man wearing a pale yellow coat, Abel (Oscar Isaac), walking resolutely. He’s making a deal and paying cash. He confident when he talks to a pale blond woman whom we later learn is his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain). Abel is making a deal with some Orthodox Jews to buy property on the waterfront. This is a deposit and the rest must be paid in 30 days or Abel will lose the deposit–his life savings.
Of course, now that we had a deadline, we also have obstacles. Someone is carjacking the new green vehicles that Abel’s company uses to transport oil. The carjackings are violent. Two men attack one driver, Julian (Elyes Gabel) and leave him collapsed and half-conscious on the street. Abel visits the hospitalized Julian.
The police find the vehicles emptied of the oil. Abel’s company is losing thousands of dollars. Yet that isn’t the end of Abel’s woes. He’s moving into a big new house in the country. Someone tries to break in at night. Is this man and the carjacking/oil theft related? As if that weren’t enough, the police are investigating Abel’s company, one that he took over from his father-in-law. His wife is the company’s accountant and she assures Abel that everything is as is the generally accepted practice. Is that legal? Is that ethical? And does it involve guns?
Abel is against the drivers using guns to defend themselves but others are not. When a nervous Julian returns to work, he’s again the victim of an attempted carjacking but this time gunshots are exchanged. The two carjackers run as does Julian. Abel’s company come under great police scrutiny and his bank loan falls through.
As Abel attempts to find out who is targeting his company and he also must re-negotiate his deal and arrange some creative financing. He finds out some things about his wife and the nature of his business.
Alex Ebert’s score simmers between a dirge and a heroic ballad as Abel struggles to keep on course, avoid violence and not lose his business. In the background we hear TV and radio reports about violent altercations. When Abel chases a suspect on to a subway car, the graffiti signals the impotence of the common people and the public works against the unseen outlaws.
Chandor allows us to relax and uses some slight of the hand to lull us into peaceful expectations before betraying us with a random act of violence. Eventually, even the quiet moments are coiled with expectations and apprehensions; a sense of wariness dominates. Chandor constructs a masterful tension by punctuating silence with violence instead of bombarding the audience with chaotic, non-stop violence. What does an honest man do when face with violence? When does one declare war?
“A Most Violent Year” won Best Film, Best Actor (Oscar Isaac in a tie with Michael Keaton for “Birdman”) and Best Supporting Actress (Jessica Chastain), an New York Film Critics Award. Chastain has been nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe. “A Most Violent Year” made its world premiere at AFI Fest 2014 (6 November 2014) and opens in the USA on 31 December.