Directed by: J.C. Chandor.
Written by: J.C. Chandor.
Starring: Oscar Isaac (Abel Morales), Jessica Chastain (Anna Morales), David Oyelowo (Lawrence), Alessandro Nivola (Peter Forente), Albert Brooks (Andrew Walsh), Elyes Gabel (Julian), Catalina Sandino Moreno (Luisa), Peter Gerety (Bill O'Leary), Christopher Abbott (Louis Servidio), Ashley Williams (Lange), John Procaccino (Arthur Lewis).
J,C, Chandor is just three films into his directing career, and he has already become someone whose next film I eagerly anticipate. Part of that is that all three of his films – Margin Call (2011), All is Lost (2013) and now A Most Violent Year are all excellent – perhaps he hasn’t made a truly great film yet, but all three are distinctive, well written, well directed and well-acted films. And part of that is because each film is so different from each other – you never quite know what he’s going to do next. Margin Call was more of a writer’s film than a director’s one – one seemingly inspired by Aaron Sorkin or David Mamet, with its large cast of characters, in one location, over the course of one long night and the next day, as a Wall Street firm decides to sell off all of its toxic assets before the rest of the market realizes just how bad they are. All is Lost is the exact opposite – just Robert Redford, alone, on a sinking boat for two hours, trying to survive – barely speaking a word. Now comes A Most Violent Year – a film that is obviously inspired by the films of the 1970s or early 1980s – something by Sidney Lumet (Serpico or Prince of the City) or the underrated Ulu Grosbard (Straight Time and True Confessions).
The film takes place in 1981 in New York City – one of the most violent years on record. It centers on Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) – who owns a heating oil business. The industry is well-known for corruption, and dishonesty – although Abel tries to run his business on the up and up (at least, compared to his competitors). But someone keeps hijacking his trucks, stealing its product, and beating up his drivers. The Teamsters want the drivers to be armed – but Abel knows that will just lead to trouble – and he already has enough of that. A D.A., Lawrence (David Oyelowo), has been tasked with cleaning up the industry – and he has Abel in his sights for an indictment. On top of that, Abel has just put down a large down payment on a new location – and needs to come up with the rest of the money in 30 days, or he loses the down payment, and perhaps his business. He has a bank loan coming – he thinks – but all the other problems could cause that to fall through.
A Most Violent Year is a slow burn of a thriller. There are a few masterful, suspenseful scenes – a car chase through a tunnel in particular. But for the most part, the movie just buries Abel slowly – brick by brick, as his morals fall away one at a time in order to survive. He is a man who wants to conduct an honest business – but if no one else is willing to do that, what chance does he have.
The performances in the film are excellent. Isaac, who delivered a star making turn in the Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis, here channels a young Al Pacino. It is a magnificent, controlled performance of slow burning intensity. Isaac is matched by Jessica Chastain as his wife, Anna, who is not the normal shrinking violet wife we normally get in a movie like this. The film, perhaps, goes a little too far the other way with her character – she is basically Lady Macbeth, prodding her husband to do more and more immoral things – and sadly she disappears for much of the latter half of the movie. But in her great scenes – Chastain is as good as she has ever been (like when she faces off against Lawrence, with a calm, cool, polite aggression. Albert Brooks is nearly unrecognizable (it’s the wig), and wonderful as Abel’s lawyer – who tries to encourage him to be realistic about his options. And Oyelowo, while he has a small role, is excellent as the D.A., who is all about his own ambition – not justice.
The film is also brilliantly shot. Cinematographer Bradford Young channels the great Gordon Willis (frequent collaborator with Francis Ford Coppola), with his dark compositions – that get darker as the movie goes along, as Abel falls further away from the man he wants to be. Combined with his work on Selma, and 2013’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, it marks Young as one of the most promising cinematographers working today.
If there is a problem with A Most Violent Year it’s that it leans too heavily on its influences – and that Chandor never really does anything new with it. It’s the third film from 2014 that was heavily inspired by the films of the 1970s – Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice does the best job, as it comes up with something different and unique. A Most Violent Year is more like James Gray’s The Immigrant (and, if we’re being honest, everything Gray has ever directed) – a film that looks great, is well written, well-acted, etc. – but never quite breaks new ground. That’s a small complaint in a movie that has this much going for it – but a real one. Three films into Chandor’s career, I’m still not sure who he is as a director – but I cannot wait to see what he does next.