“A Most Violent Year” may be slow, but it’s never dull. With his third feature, J.C. Chandor has crafted a beautiful, subtle film that functions both as an absorbing drama and a thoughtful examination of the adage “desperate times call for desperate measures.”
The film is quite deliberately set in New York City, 1981, allegedly the most brutal year on record for violent crimes in the city. It follows Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac doing his best “Young Al Pacino” impression) and his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain, who is excellent but mostly relegated to the sideline here) through the toughest month of their lives.
Abel is a budding entrepreneur and the owner of a heating oil company, and the film opens with Abel striking a lucrative deal for a property that has the power to take his business to the next level. The deal, however, is contingent on Abel coming up with the $US1.5 million in 30 days, which may not have been a problem at a different time but is a huge threat now considering Abel’s drivers are getting robbed like clockwork and the city’s DA is actively bringing charges against his business for corrupt practices.
While Abel isn’t exactly innocent, he’s a truly honorable man doing the best the can. His wife is a gangster’s daughter, and ever since Abel took over the company from her corrupt family, the DA can’t seem to keep his nose out of their operation. Abel’s philosophy, as he so deftly puts it, is that “the result is never in question, just the path you take to get there.”
Abel believes there are always two paths that lead to the same result, and one of those paths is “most right.” Despite his wife’s insistence to continue cooking the books (she has an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality regarding organised crime), Abel is resolute in making it to the top of his industry through his own hard work and determination. Despite the constant hardships thrown his way, Abel consistently does all he can to excel and be successful.
The film’s brutally honest take on the American Dream is refreshing and thought-provoking. The audience is asked to mediate on what it takes to become a success and question how big a role corruption and compromise play in the matter. The film’s grimly twisted finale is pure cinema at its finest — it’s scary, exciting, and engaging but also intellectually stimulating.
The performances in the film are all top-notch, and Oscar Isaac turns in his second Award-worthy performance in two years. He may have been royally snubbed at last year’s Academy Awards, but his performance in the Coen Brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis” is about as good as it gets. His take on Abel in “A Most Violent Year” is the polar opposite of Llewyn — the man has some serious range.
What’s so exciting about the role is how gradually his true character is revealed; we are never quite sure what Abel is capable of so each scene drips with dramatic tension. As the story progresses, we learn more about his values, and by the end of the picture, we have watched him blossom and become fully realised. When given a chance, Chastain is a scene stealer, but she simply doesn’t have enough to do here. The legendary Albert Brooks (who was terrific in 2011’s “Drive“) shines in an almost unrecognizable turn as Abel’s lawyer.
Besides the stellar performances, the photography, editing, and meticulous pacing help make the film incredibly efficient. The period look and costume design mesh perfectly with the cinematography, and Chandor has proven yet again that he is a top-notch director and really makes every shot count.
There are a couple of suspenseful action sequences thrown in the mix that should be totally jarring in context but are so masterfully handled that they work. There’s an emotional depth attached to the action, as the audience is pulling for Abel and wants him to succeed, which makes the scenes that much more impactful.
While it definitely features some of the best performances of the year, the film itself feels too understated and not flashy enough (think “The Master” and “Inside Llewyn Davis”) to garner any serious attention from the Academy. It will likely get the performance nominations, but not much else. That being said, “A Most Violent Year” is so rich and deeply layered that it will receive plenty of rave reviews and stand the test of time.
Watch the trailer below.
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