A Most Violent Year
Director: J.C. Chandor.
Screenplay: J.C. Chandor.
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Albert Brooks, Alessandro Nivola, Elyes Gabel, Catalina Sandino Morelo, Peter Gerety, Christopher Abbott.
“When it feels scary to jump, that is exactly when you jump, otherwise you end up staying in the same place your whole life, and that I can’t do”.
After the impressively talkative Margin Call and the hypnotically silent All Is Lost, the third film from J.C. Chandor had a lot of expectations behind it. However, due to a misjudged marketing campaign, I think many people will be left disappointed with A Most Violent Year. It’s doesn’t have echoes of The Godfather as the trailer would have you believe but is, in fact, a leisurely and low-key criminal affair that will mostly appeal to those who are prepared for it’s more personal story.
Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is self-made businessman who is determined to expand his heating oil organisation. However, someone keeps hijacking his trucks, costing him money and the trust of his local investors. Abel tries to deal with the situation lawfully and non-violently but his no-nonsense wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain) suggests he gets tougher on the gangsters and the unions around him before everything he’s worked hard for comes crashing down.
The title A Most Violent Year will mislead many when it comes J.C. Chandor’s third film. It actually refers to the year (1981) in which it’s set, whereby New York had an upsurge of violent crimes. This violence isn’t necessarily relevant to film itself and to know this beforehand may allow you to enjoy the film and it’s methodical and meticulous approach all the more.
Although this film should certainly not be compared to Francis Ford Coppola’s Corleone saga, you can definitely see Oscar Isaac resembling a young Al Pacino. He plays his character with the same simmering intensity and intelligence and it’s largely due to Isaac’s towering performance that the film succeeds in being a mood-piece or a solid character study and less of a mob movie. It’s not overly concerned with people getting ‘whacked’ or double-crossed but more concerned about business and how our struggling protagonist deals with things in a controlled and dignified manner – despite his righteous indignation. It also doesn’t help that his wife is the daughter of a Brooklyn gangster who feels the solution to every problem is a violent one. Keeping her in check is a constant issue, especially when it’s played with such verve and dangerous passion by Jessica Chastain. Personally, I’d liked to have seen the leads among the Oscar contenders this year as the work they produce here, is some of their very best.
As well as the performances, the film’s look is equally impressive. Bradley Young’s gorgeous, desaturated cinematography captures the feel for the time and the city of New York and (as some critics have already pointed out) echoes the gritty early work of Sidney Lumet. It manages to avoid the usual genre clichés and deliver a work of thoughtful suspense. It leaves you hanging and waiting for something to happen but restrains itself from treading a well worn path within the sub-genre and, as a result, ends up succeeding in the very things that it doesn’t do.
In hindsight, if Chandor had chosen a different title then he might not have led many viewers into false expectations. However, this is a slow burner and a case of less is more. If you resist the urge to judge the film before seeing it, you’ll find it as stylish and refined as the camel-haired apparel that Isaac carries so gallantly.
Trivia: Albert Brooks’s role was originally written for Stanley Tucci and Charlize Theron passed on the role that went to Jessica Chastain. Javier Bardem was cast in the lead role during development. But after some disagreements with the film’s direction, Bardem dropped out. After he left the project Chastain wrote director J.C. Chandor an impassioned three page letter asking him to consider Oscar Isaac for the lead role. Chandor replied back almost immediately with an email saying he was already considering Isaac.