A Most Violent Year’s best scene comes early, and it’s not a hijacking or shootout. It’s a simple conversation between aspiring New York heating-oil baron Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) and three of his new door-to-door salesmen. Abel walks them through the shrewd steps of closing a sale: appear classy, imply but don’t directly state that the homeowners’ current heating system isn’t up to speed, and—the clincher—stare them down until they cave.
Job training hasn’t been this absorbing since Wall Street. Unlike Gordon Gekko, though, Abel believes these manipulative tactics to be not only effective but good, honest business. He’s helping the customers make a mutually beneficial decision: his product is the best, so their life improves as much as his own. Movies these days usually portray capitalism as a nebulous, purely evil impulse (and charge you $20 to see it in IMAX 3-D), so it’s refreshing to see one that understands salesmanship and grift as everyday, basic instincts.
The rest of Year’s first half isn’t so great. Stakes come together immediately and then are clumsily overexplained. Abel has just bought a valuable storage property on credit and has 30 days to pay for it. His oil trucks keep getting hijacked by thugs working for rival companies, and he refuses to let his drivers carry guns with fake permits (because that would be wrong). He bumbles through questionable terrible decisions like this in the name of “honest business” while his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) and lawyer Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks) plead, argue, and ultimately submit to his goodie-two-shoes whims.
Maybe there was some kernel in Year’s opening salvo of exposition that would have made me sympathize more with Abel, I don’t know. Within the first half-hour, I stopped counting how many times characters would respond to dialogue with “I know” or explain to other characters something that just happened in the previous scene. Writer/director J.C. Chandor also did double duties on 2011’s Margin Call, and that script was as airtight as its subjects’ budget spreadsheets weren’t. I was shocked that someone with Chandor’s pedigree had written Year’s early scenes, re-read them later, and decided to shoot them.
Somewhere around the hour mark, though, A Most Violent Year finds its legs. As the ticking time-bomb of that 30-day deal gets louder, it becomes less Lumet, more Hitchcock: a Man In Trouble trying to connect the dots and stay afloat. As soon as Abel’s problems grow enough that he has to cut corners and sacrifice his dignity, his situation becomes something you care about. Oscar Isaac’s performance has a lot to do with it—the comparisons with Godfather-era Al Pacino aren’t far off. He does as good a job as Bradley Cooper in American Sniper’s domestic scenes of showing strain under the surface, of trying to keep his problems close to the chest as the noose slowly tightens.
Brooks and David Oyelowo (as a DA investigating Abel) don’t have much to work with. Chastain is fun as Abel’s wife, although the script doesn’t give us any idea of what makes their marriage tick beyond a mutual love of dollar signs. Anna’s whole role is to yell at Abel to grow some balls and bend the rules, over and over again. Also, her father used to own the company, and he’s in jail now. Also, she’s Abel’s bookkeeper. Bet you can’t guess what the third-act twist is. Her rants give us most of the movie’s simpler pleasures, so I can’t complain.
The smartest thing Year’s second half does is deny the audience a central villain. It introduces some scummy characters, but Chandor doesn’t pin all of the attacks on any one person or group. We don’t even find out the source of half of it—it’s just how the system works. A late scene where Abel gathers all of his business rivals makes that point better than anything in Wall Street. The oil barons all deny hijacking his trucks; instead of poisoning their food Michael Corleone-style, Abel simply says, “Stop. Have some pride in what you do,” and walks away.
If you make it through Year’s first impression, the purity of that sentiment and its later hypocrisy get under your skin. At its best, the movie echoes Margin Call’s theme: capitalism is bigger and smarter than you or anyone else, and it’ll turn all of your principles against you. If A Most Violent Year is still playing near you, twelve bucks for that reminder might be a worthy investment.
Kells is an Oakland native with a sad compulsion to put his opinions online. He hopes that you like them, but what’s really important is that you like yourself. @awkeller510