The gangster genre has taken on many forms and we’ve seen subtle entries, as well as guns-a-blazing one’s. Violence usually follows with this genre and you’ve always got some shady deals going on. This film’s title would lead you to believe that this film is chock full of violence, but it is one of the more misleading titles of the year. Despite that, this film does revive the gangster genre and with it, comes some extraordinary performances and a more restrained story.
The year is 1981 and in New York, this was one of the most violent years in history. Running a respectable Oil Heating business, Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is attempting to purchase a new piece of land that will expand his business and make things easier. This purchase is a multi-million dollar one and there’s a lot at stake within the fine lines of the contract. Scrambling to get the money together, Abel is in a tough position because his trucks are being stolen and he’s losing business. His best-friend and gangster buddy Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks) suggest that he take action, but Abel doesn’t want to resort to violence.
Abel’s wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), is more inclined to take action because her family’s safety is being put at risk. Her father owned the company before Abel bought it, but he left many things to be investigated by the D.A. (David Oyelowo). Abel is just trying to run a clean business, but everyone and everything around him is making it hard to do so honestly. Many of the rival Oil Heating companies are possible thieves in the mind of Abel, but his primary focus needs to be making enough money to follow through with the pending deal.
A Most Violent Year is a worthwhile slow-build that yields incredible rewards in terms of acting, storytelling, and film-making. Taking its time, this film depicts the intricacies of running and maintaining a business in crime-ridden New York and really emphasizes how dangerous business can be if you have something that everyone else wants. The performances are exceptional, as is the direction and perspective provided by the writer/director. A film also focuses on morals and the drive that compel men to act, A Most Violent Year highlights immense struggle and the pursuit to take care of matters in a clean and efficient method.
Oscar Isaac should change his name to Oscar Worthy Isaac, because he yet again provides us with a phenomenal performance that stands out in an already competitive year. His performance is one which takes time to appreciate, as he’s the golden boy in a group of gangsters. He offers up many great speeches and his calm, controlled interactions with most of the business men are electric. When he erupts with rage, he becomes frightening and intimidating, commanding the screen and chewing up all his lines. More than anything, his non-violent demeanor and attempts to remain peaceful are admirable, considering the world he inhabits.
Jessica Chastain isn’t as involved as you’d think, or would like, but she certainly makes the greatest use of her time. Although she may seem like a housewife that understands her husband has all the power, Chastain makes it very clear that she’s holding all the cards in the family with the looks she gives, the plays she makes, and the few words she needs to make things clear to Isaac. She’s ruthlessly graceful and her New York accent makes her all the more appealing.
J.C. Chandor is such an interesting man, who clearly and effectively transmits his thoughts on to the screen. Each project of his carefully crafted and a little bit different than what general audiences are used to, which is a great thing. With A Most Violent Year, Chandor gives us what feels like an inside look into the gasoline business in a time where crime is running rampant. His dialogue immediately piques the audiences interest and his ability to tell a story, without having to be so eccentric, is incredibly admirable. He turns what would be a dreary story for other filmmakers, into an interesting and compelling film.
In terms of direction, Chandor stylistically employs many techniques which help clue-in the audience as to what’s going on, as well as some which keep us guessing at what’s coming next. Chandor’s scenic backgrounds are rightfully used as props, which these characters effectively use. There’s a lot of focus and buildup surrounding the deal and everything that it means and Chandor doesn’t only focus on his lead characters. He provides input from the workers, the bankers, the District Attorney, and even the competition. This inclusion gives us a sense of all the factors going into Isaac’s decisions and how he moves forward, hoping to secure the deal.
A Most Violent Year is perhaps the most quietly brilliant film that I’ve seen this year and hopefully it will receive loud praise on all fronts. I will cross my fingers, hoping that Oscar Isaac get recognized for his brilliant turn in this film, as it’s truly one of the year’s best. More of Chastain’s character and more about her character’s past would be helpful, but neither of those make this film worse. J.C. Chandor offers up his most accessible and whole film here and it’s not crazy to imagine it ending up on my “Best Of” list. This is the perfect film for someone seeking something a little bit different.
A Most Violent Year Trailer