When it feels scary to jump, that is exactly when you jump.

When it feels scary to jump, that is exactly when you jump.

 

Whether we care to admit it or not, we often buy into things based on image. It could be the image we give off when we partake in these goods and services – the restaurants we eat in, the cars we drive. Just the same, it could be the image embodied by the people selling us these things – the confidence they carry, the life they seem to live.

Perhaps it’s worth wondering what it is about that image that draws us in…and what it takes to maintain that image?

Set in New York in 1981, A MOST VIOLENT YEAR is the story of Abel and Anna (Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain).

Abel is in the energy business, selling fuel and heating to working class homes. He has built his business up from nothing and is sets a deal in motion that will expand his business to the point where he could become the most successful and powerful man in a viciously competitive market.

It’s at this point – right when he is on the precipice of true power – that things start to go drastically wrong.

It begins with his fuelling trucks getting hijacked on New York expressways at gunpoint. The drivers terrorized, the contents stolen, and the bad press building up, Abel has to withstand blow after blow to his company’s success and reputation. On the other side of the line, he is being asked to open his books to the federal government by an ambitious DA (David Oyelowo). While Abel’s books are generally clean, he’s still leery of what word of a federal investigation might do to the fragility of his plans for expansion.

So it’s left to Abel and Anna to decide how to confront this violent assault on everything they have worked for.

Anna, who we are led to believe was raised in a family of crooked dealings and violent consequences, wants to strike back. She believes that Abel should send messages to his competitors, and show just what happens when you cross a man of his power.

Abel, meanwhile, wants to counter by working harder. He wants to less to outmuscle his opponents in lieu of outsmarting them. He’s down for begging and borrowing, but he refuses to steal.

The question becomes whether he can keep holding to those principles, as the foundation of what he has built continues to erode and it threatens to come tumbling down.

 

chastain

 

In many ways, A MOST VIOLENT YEAR is trying to sell an image – the same way Abel is. he knows that his product isn’t the cheapest, so he can’t sell it on value. Instead, he looks to pedal his wares on quality. His trucks are the newest, his staff is the most knowledgeable, his house is the biggest, and his clothes are the fanciest. He isn’t selling a product, he’s selling peace of mind and status.

This stance is echoed with the film itself which knows it isn’t saying anything new, so it makes up for it by saying it with panache and candor. It is truly handsome, and always mature. It knows full-well that it won’t be the top dog at the box office, but it wants to put its best foot forward for those who do show. While it’s doing that, it does everything it can to be forthright. It wants to tell us a story that might be familiar, but is still very relevant in an age where so few of us are able to get ahead anymore.

Its message – as Abel bluntly states at one point – is that there are few things in life harder than total honesty. Whether it’s being able to say “No, I haven’t cheated to get where I’m at” or “Yes, we know we’re more expensive, but we’re better”, it requires a great amount of character and fortitude to reject a shortcut. Indeed, the film goes around the long way by refraining from being flashy, and curiously eschewing abhorrent violence. Instead what we get is a more interesting low simmer, and true tension on several occasions.

Take, for instance, the portrayal of marriage that this movie unspools. To the world, Abel and Anna are a typical white-collar couple. he is the outgoing and ambitious businessman, and she is the quiet and supportive spouse. When they sit down at a business dinner, she seldom speaks up, except to underline how forthright they are being. When they’re alone though, things are very different. She pushes him, she challenges him, and she second-guesses him when he is at his most vulnerable. None of it is meant to undermine what he has done, none of it is meant to emasculate him – and this only happens because she always stops herself just shy.

No, behind closed doors the relationship of Abel and Anna is a complicated and even-footed one, and might well be what ultimately allows them to succeed. To the world, she is a “Housewife of New Jersey” (well before there was such a thing). To Abel though, she is an invaluable silent partner.

Seeing this relationship as portrayed by Isaac and Chastain is worth the price of admission alone: the cutthroat business plot is almost frosting on the cake. It shows that there can be deep disagreement in a marriage without histrionics, and further that there can be disagreement without dissent. There’s a fine line between heated discussion and bitter brawling: Isaac and Chastain are well aware of this line and always walk right up to it without ever crossing.

So much of the premise of A MOST VIOLENT YEAR feels familiar: the vicious side effects of the business, the American Dream ambition, the retro chic. One could easily be forgiven if they feel like they’ve seen this movie before. However, what makes this movie stand out – and what makes it worth seeing – is a maturity most films at the multiplex lack. It understands that grown-ups don’t always want their dramas to be warm and syrupy, that there is a desire for the cold and calculating. In an age where most of the best adult drama is on television, this is a film that still sees a place for that drama and the scope it can employ in a multiplex.

It doesn’t want to sell itself on value; instead, it sells itself on quality.

Matineescore: ★ ★ ★ 1/2 out of ★ ★ ★ ★
What did you think? Please leave comments with your thoughts and reactions on A MOST VIOLENT YEAR.