A Most Violent Year

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Mark Walker

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.

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43 Responses to “A Most Violent Year”

  1. Good stuff bro. I have a review ready to post on this. I liked the slow burn and the cast is just a hoot. I really like seeing Isaac getting more spotlight.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I LOVED this movie. Sure it was a slow burn but by the time Abel is chasing the truck down the train tracks I was on the edge of my seat and the performances were excellent. I did wonder about it being called A Most Violent Year because I was thinking this movie is set over about 30 days according to the terms of the loan… ha ha!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Not a bad suspicion on the film’s title, Abbi, I was considering many reasons myself until I done a little digging. I reckon the title while confuse as many as it disappoints. However, this is a prime example of never judging the cover (or title, in this case). Brilliant film. Glad to hear you felt the same.

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  3. Excellent review! I saw the trailer recently, and I wondered whether this movie is worth seeing in theaters.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Irene. I, personally, wouldn’t judge this film on it’s trailer. I saw the trailer beforehand too and the film itself is a different deal altogether. Be ready for a slow burner with great acting and you won’t be disappointed.

      Like

  4. Slow burns are my favorite kind of movies! I want to see it tonight, but I’m not sure I can convince my boyfriend to go since he doesn’t like slow movies.

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  5. Already looking forward to this!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Great review! I can’t wait to see this one. HUGE fan of both actors.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I love a movie with a slow burn, excellent post Mark.

    Like

  8. Good review Mark. It’s an interesting thriller, that doesn’t always rely on the car-chases or gun fights to bring out tension.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Oh I was under the impression by your comments that it didn’t meet your expectations. So glad to see that what the film did, really captivated you. I’m in full agreement. I loved it as well.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Nice read Mark. We are parking our cars in the same garage once again! It’d be great if there were a few more films of this nature being made, wouldn’t it?

    Liked by 1 person

    • We’ll need to start charging each other rent money! 😉
      Fabulous film, man, and I certainly wouldn’t mind more of the same here. Chandor is developing into a very fine and brave director.

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      • Haha! Or maybe we need to find a genre where our tastes are completely opposite? I’ve got to check Chandor’s other films…especially interested in Margin Call.

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      • Margin Call is a good movie. I found some faults here and there but for a debut it was very impressive. I was a little less involved in All is Lost but I was still impressed with it nonetheless.

        Liked by 1 person

  11. Great review Mark! I was impressed w/ Margin Call and so I really want to see this one. I actually like the fact that this is a more personal story that isn’t all about ‘people getting whacked’ as you said. I love both Isaac and Chastain, too, two VERY talented actors who were fellow Julliard students.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Ruth. This has certainly a different approach to the crime film. It’s built around it characters and less on action or violence. It’s very good and both Isaac and Chastain are superb.

      Like

  12. Oh man, I’m desperate to see this but it’s not got any exposure around here. A trip out of town to search down a screening is going to have to be made! Glorious work Marcus!

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  13. Nice review. I’ve been meaning to see this for weeks. I was a fan of Chandor’s previous two movies, plus I’d pretty much see any movie that Issac or Chastain star in.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. daveackackattack Says:

    Finally got to see this Mark. I don’t think the title gave false expectations.. the TRAILER gave false expectations. I caught it right after I saw the movie. All the violence was in the trailer. IMHO the movie was hardly slow… especially when compared to All Is Lost which was brilliant in its own right.

    This is the first film I saw with Issac. Issac reminded me sooooo much of Godfather era Pacino… and that’s a good thing. Chastain was really good in this although I’m getting burnt out from seeing her in everything. It kind of takes away from her characters but hey I can’t blame her striking while the iron is hot. David Oyelowo (who I was a fan of on TV’s Spooks (aka MI-5) is having a breakout year, wouldn’t you say?

    I was impressed at the 70’s feel of the movie. It holds its own with the films of that era like The French Connection, Serpico or especially The Godfather I & II films. Chandor’s really becoming a writer/director to watch. He’s turning into a modern day Sidney Lumet with his broad range and great storytelling. Big thumbs up!

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    • The trailer definitely gave the wrong impression, Dave but me being unfamiliar with the history of New York, I did find the title misleading too. I had to dig a little to find out why it was called this. Still, it didn’t hinder my experience. I thought it was superb and the performances top notch! Isaac definitely resembles a young Pacino but I didn’t get The Godfather comparisons (from the trailer). If anything, I seen if more like Scarface and Pacino’s rise to power while Chastain resembled Michelle Pfieffer’s character in some ways. Wonderfully shot and played and quite an underrated gem in my eyes. Saying that, though, those like ourselves who are patient are speaking very highly of it and it deserves to spoken highly of. Great film!

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      • daveackackattack Says:

        I didn’t mean to imply the comparison from the trailer but to the way the film was shot was definitely reminiscent of Gordon Willis’s dimly lit shots from The Godfather. Willis even said he went too far on a couple of shots (see the video in the link to the article below.) Fellow DP Conrad Hall didn’t call him “The Prince of Darkness” for nothing. Also Willis became famous for the sepia toned flashback shots of De Niro as a young Vito Corleone in The Godfather II which became the standard for pre-world war II flashback shots since then. He was quite a ground breaker although he admittedly did say that he was difficult to work with. I don’t think I’ve seen a film this underexposed since The Godfather II. Almost like an homage. That’s all I was sayin’. That and Issac was channeling Pacino in the best possible way.

        Here’s a great write up about Willis on The Godfather with a great 3 minute Youtube video.

        http://www.tested.com/art/movies/463501-filming-light-and-dark-side-godfather/

        Like I said before Mark I always try to give you the best stuff.

        Great, great catch with the Scarface/Pfeiffer comparison.

        http://fashiontribes.typepad.com/.a/6a00d834515e6669e2017c34ddbadd970b-pi

        Lastly since you brought up not knowing about NYC in 1981 here’s a short 6 minute doc from The Most Violent Year filmmakers about just how dangerous the city was back then.

        That should keep you busy. Hope you like.

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      • Damn, Dave! You always hit out with the best comments, man. That’s some fabulous feedback. I can see what you mean now regarding Gordon Willis’ approach to lighting and how this film resembled that. Even one of the pics I used in my review reflects that very style.

        Those pics of Chastain and Pfeiffer are unmistakable aren’t they. It was that whole dress sense of Chastain (and the feisty attitude) that reminded me of Pfeiffer straight away – while Isaacs was doing his whole Pacino thing.

        I’ll work my way through the other stuff as well, my friend. Thanks again!

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  15. Hey Mark, it’s good to see some praise for this film. I watched it this week and found it very compelling. I agree though that it is a very misleading title and the director may well have shot himself in the foot by giving it that name. It’s great to see another excellent performance from the rising star of Oscar Issac. He looked very different to how he looked in Inside Llewyn Davis, but there was a huge parallel between the two characters given they are both men who have a lot of potential but everything is working against them. The look and vibe of early Al Pacino was apparent to me too. I’m looking forward to seeing Issac in Ex-Machina later in the year. Keep up the good work.

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    • Hey Darren. Thanks for dropping in, man. Glad to hear you took plenty from this too. You’re spot with Isaac and how different, yet similar, he was as Llewyn Davis. He turning out to be one of the most exciting around just now. Ex-Machina is on my list too. The man can do no wrong just now!

      Liked by 1 person

  16. Great review. I’m still to upload my thoughts on it, due to lack of time not due to the need for perspective and readjustment on my expectations.

    It’s interesting how you raise the point around misleading titles, it’s difficult to shake a preemptive opinion on a film once you have it in your head. Sometimes it can take a few watches before you really start to appreciate the film if it doesn’t meet expectations. In this instance if you expect a violent crime film, then it could have been quite disappointing. I felt the same with ‘Under The Skin’, pitched as a weird alien thriller in the reviews I read before going, I felt I was sold short when I came out of the cinema. On second and third viewings, I appreciated it for what it was.

    Often that’s down to noticing more second time round, knowing what to expect, you ‘get it’ on the second viewing. Sometimes it doesn’t work though, and what you watch for the second time is still awful.

    There was an interesting article in the Guardian about critics being able to watch films more than once here; http://www.theguardian.com/film/filmblog/2015/jan/29/should-critics-see-films-more-than-once-inherent-vice

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can’t thank you enough for this comment at this time, man! I’m currently writing my Inherent Vice review and this article you linked to it perfect for what I’m trying to say.

      I didn’t feel that A Most Violent Year required a second viewing but I did have to think about what I’d just seen due to my expectations (and the misleading title) but once the dust settled, I realised it was very good film in its own right. I’ll keep my eyes for your review. I’m interested in hearing your take on it. Cheers buddy!

      Like

  17. […] immeasurably but his cast and crew; Bradford Young (who previously impressed me with his work in A Most Violent Year) delivers some stunningly captured cinematography and Jóhan Jóhansson’s score perfectly […]

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