A very deliberate and intense thriller that seemed to slip through the radar in the intense 2014/2015 Oscar season. Director J.C. Chandor masterfully directs this quiet crime story that rivals classics like The Godfather or newer entries in the crime film genre like No Country for Old Men. This period piece has an interesting story that is equal parts crime, mystery, and thriller with some of the best performances movie-going audiences will see in 2015.
Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is a soft spoken businessman with ambitious plans on turning his business into something respectable into something phenomenal. The business is run with Abel’s wife Anna Morales (Jessica Chastain). Anna is constantly underestimated and underutilized, but she stands strong and stands by her husband. Abel moves with his somewhat sleazy lawyer Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks) on an ambitious make-it-or-break-it plan for new land, new holdings, and new position with his business. The film takes place in 1981, the most violent year in recorded United States history for the city of New York. Hence the title of the film. Part of this violence was the wars in competing gas companies. Through the course of the film Abel’s fuel supply trucks are constantly being hijacked. His drivers are assaulted, or worse, and the fuel is sold on the black market. These pressures in addition to the stress put on Abel by his land deal hanging by a thread push the man and test the limits of his professional demeanor.
In a movie as deliberately paced as A Most Violent Year direction was more important than ever. The world portrayed in the film is drab. The cars of the era are boring, the suits plain. Abel Morales is a man who keeps his cool and doesn’t want to be a gangster. There is some action to carry out the story but this is a story of tension, business, and intrigue more than car chases and shoot outs. All these factors could, in some hands, work against how interesting a film can be. The strength of the script, the mesmerizing performances by the entire cast, and the expert direction of Chandor handle all the elements of the film to near perfection.
Oscar Isaac has been acting for a while but has never done anything that really jumped into audiences minds. He was never a bad actor but never went that left an impression. Until now. Isaac carried this two plus hour story on his shoulders with such perfection that he will likely be remembered for this low key performance for years to come. Upcoming roles in major films in the Star Wars and X-Men franchises won’t hurt keeping him in the minds of audience members either. Jessica Chastain is another actor who has been in Hollywood for a while but most recently took that leap from talented to name brand. Her character doesn’t get nearly the screen time as Isaac’s Able but her character is fierce and perfect for everything she has to do.
Chandor is not only responsible for the expert direction of the film but also for the incredibly strong script. The dialogue in the film is sharp. Abel doesn’t utter a single word without thinking every angle of his implied and direct message through. Anna is similar to Abel in many ways. Strong, business minded, and thoughtful. Abel’s intensity is matched by that of his wife and looking at the film as a whole, the subtlety in the writing of the two leads, Anna may even be the stronger character. The script is further strengthened by its attention to detail. It’s themes in right and wrong, doing whatever needs to be done to achieve your goals, and the message that you can’t outrun, outbid, or hide from your past. This is most directly relayed through a driver for Abel’s fuel company Julian (Elyes Gabel). Gabel’s character serves as a look into the past of Isaac’s. Both immigrants, both trying to make something of themselves, both wanting to avoid a life of crime but having to do what they feel is right at all times. Julian looks up to Abel and Abel sees a reflection of his former self in Julian. Their scenes together are borderline poetic and the tragedy that the city and the time thrust on the characters is tragic.
A Most Violent Year is a prime example of a well crafted film. The pacing, writing, story, performances, and cinematography are all fine examples of film being an art that doesn’t need Avengers type budgets or special effects to captivate audiences. Go and see A Most Violent Year, you’ll be glad you did.