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On A MOST VIOLENT YEAR: When Homes Start to Look Like Their Owners

On A MOST VIOLENT YEAR: When Homes Start to Look Like Their Owners

The places where we live shape us, and we shape the places
where we live to suit our temperaments. This truth is driven home repeatedly by
J.C. Chandor’s newest film, A Most
Violent Year
, which has been compared repeatedly to The Godfather but just as easily could be compared to On the Waterfront, Winter’s Bone, or The Truman
Show
as a study of the way inhabitants of an environment deal with and
modify their environment. Chandor has foregrounded setting to such an extent
that the two powerful performances at the film’s heart—Oscar Isaac’s as the manager of an oil trucking company, learning how to defend himself against the aggression of his semi-criminal colleagues, and Jessica Chastain’s as his
wife, who already knows and is desperate to teach him—seem to grow naturally
out of the milieu in which we receive them. However, these figures also shape
the settings in which they thrive.

The first sight we have of Abel shows him running, nimbly,
though a modest suburban New Jersey neighborhood. The setting is appropriate
for a character like his: contained, inwardly manicured, almost frustratingly
righteous and plodding when it comes to the moral shorthand those around him
employ for survival’s sake. There is something bleak about these streets,
comfortable as they might seem; there’s a notable lack of other people in
Abel’s surroundings, a visible emptiness, that suits the story, and suits also
the story he is writing with his actions here. After he makes the first payment
on his business, huddled in a cold-seeming trailer, his partner, played with
memorable paleness by Albert Brooks, encourages Abel to take a look around his
future headquarters, and so he does: down by the river, facing Manhattan from
the Jersey side, perhaps picturesque in one sense but at this moment, in the
middle of winter, standing behind oil tanks, it seems less like a view of
dreamland than a reminder of what obstructions lie ahead. The buildings are all
the same color, they’re all huge, and they’re all a long way off. When we see
Abel’s house for the first time, its sleekness is impressive but its coldness
is telling. The impression it makes is not that Abel is cold—for he isn’t. As
confidently portrayed here by Isaac, he’s a warm person, almost warm to a
fault, naïve in his trust of ethics, good faith, honesty, and the people in his employ. The house suggests,
though, the high-flown way he believes a man of his stature should live: high ceilings, pristine
surfaces, vast spaces, off-white walls, the perfect kitchen, the perfect
library. But it’s a borrowed idea of perfection. When we meet one of his
associates, played here with semi-beefy malevolence by Alessandro Nivola, it
appears that they share this same notion of coldness, the appearance of
perfection, as an aesthetic. The colleague has a racquetball court built into
his house, pinging opulence at us with the force of the ball itself. When the
two share a drink and discuss a loan which could push Abel into career
adulthood, they sit in a space-age interior, resembling something out of an
advertisement rather than a place where anyone might live. This is fitting,
though, because the people Chandor is filming here place little stock in homes,
in domesticity; for them life is work, and work is life. Work, further, is all about the rewards you reap, and the rewards you reap are, in essence, your life.

Chandor is smart about this dichotomy, though. When we see
the home of one of Abel’s employees, a vulnerable man who, after being beaten
up by the thugs whose aggression against Abel’s drivers propels the story, shoots his aggressors and then flees, the apartment’s modesty and hominess, with its inexpensive furniture, its drawn shades, and its
lived-in quality stand in stark contrast to the other interiors we’ve seen. It’s
clear hat the employee isn’t suffering under the same preconceived notions Abel
suffers under—but when he meets a sad fate, we wonder if such illusions might
have helped him. In an interview, Oscar Isaac
recounted how Chandor had stressed the importance of the suits Abel wears in
the film, and how their presence might dictate the character’s behavior, and in
fact his entire world view. This is a profound truth, when all is said and
done: outer trappings can shape the person to which they are attached, in
greater or lesser degrees. It’s the direction that shaping takes that makes all
the difference.

Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.

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