A MOST VIOLENT YEAR is a pressure cooker. The heat builds and builds until there is no room to contain it, and it explodes. The film is measured in its pace and heavy with dialogue, but it’s permeated with moments of intense violence. I was disturbed, and yet enthralled. As unsettling as it is, this film’s compelling portrait of human behavior and its strong central character drew me in.
The director, J.C. Chandor, is interested in people who are pushed to their limits. His films traffic in intensity, from the financial crisis in MARGIN CALL to the oceanic survival of ALL IS LOST. A MOST VIOLENT YEAR is about Abel Morales, whose livelihood and pride are completely invested in the success of his oil company. Oscar Isaac inhabits this role, his arrogant integrity filling every step and word. Abel tries to follow the “right path,” beating his competitors with his superior ethics. But his field is fraught with violent competition, and his company has suffered a number of truck hijackings during the year.
While Abel strives to maintain the integrity of his business, his employees get beaten and robbed for him. He seems to see them as chessmen caught in an unfortunate bind, but Chandor has a different perspective. The director hides his feelings behind long, provocative close-ups and panoramic views of New York City; but by making the violence against Abel’s employees so up close and personal, he puts their suffering center stage.
I missed this at first. Identifying with Abel’s ambition, intelligence, and integrity, I really wanted him to succeed, to consummate the American Dream. Why did I, bleeding-heart liberal that I am, get so invested in this capitalist notion of success? Because of Chandor’s sleight of hand. By using tight shots and refusing to show his characters’ surroundings, he puts me side-by-side with them. When Abel searches his house at night to investigate a phantom noise, I see only his silhouette, and hear no music. Noise echoes off the side of the screen, creating the unnerving feeling that danger is right around the corner.
As the film shows more on his employees’ suffering, my perspective shifts. A salesman is knocked out and wakes up in the back of a large truck. He can’t see where he’s being taken, and neither can I. Imagining myself in that terrifying situation makes me realize Abel’s livelihood isn’t the only one at stake. His single-minded idea of integrity has trumped everything else, but his success is a crusade with human lives on the line.
I was hoping for some sort of resolution by the end. The violence was so intense, the stakes so high, I wanted something good to come of it. Whether anything does is an open question, but I don’t think that’s what Chandor is concerned with. He’s concerned with the actions of a man whose pride and vision obscure his perspective on reality. Like the great SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, this film is about the choices of a powerful few impacting the lives of the many. Watching it will not make you feel more optimistic about human nature. But you might understand yourself a little better, because there’s a part of Abel in all of us.