Slick, steely, measured, calculated and psychologically satisfying, A Most Violent Year is also one of the best of the year. Writer/Director J.C. Chandor has done it again (Margin Call, All is Lost) by combining well-crafted storytelling with an eye for detail and a muscular directing style that complements his actors well. Oscar Isaac, who has been on the scene for a while but made a name for himself as the lead of the Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis brings to mind a young Al Pacino, as the film itself knowingly pays tribute to the corruptible city stories of Sidney Lumet and David Mamet.
Isaac is Abel Morales, a tough but extremely fair (maybe to a fault?) owner and operator of a heating oil company in 1981 New York City. He’s fought a tough as nails battle to get his business where it needs to be, and is all set to purchase an important piece of land by the river that will give his business unfettered access and power. With 30 days to close the deal, everything seems to come crashing down on him; a slew of road-jackings and an imminent indictment from the DA’s office forces the bank he has been doing business with for years, to pull out. All the elements around he and his business are pushing to force him to act on the wrong side of the law, including his street-smart wife Anna (chameleon-like Jessica Chastain) whose father built Morales’ business with extremely dirty, “mafia-tied” hands. While Morales is an impeccably polite and dressed business man who approaches every problem calmly, head first – a handshake and a conversation to follow — his partner (Albert Brooks, continually building his serious supporting role resume ) and the head of the Teamsters, and even the law themselves are advising him to get dirty, too.
The film is as calm and smooth as Morales, taking its time and reserving the violence we are so expecting in small but powerful doses. Much like David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, every violent moment seems so impactful because it is so deserved, and uses it as a catalyst for worse things to come. (A Most Violent Year is actually one of the least violent films you’ll see all year). It’s also, for all its characters, representing different echelons of business, crime, goods and services, a very easy, uncomplicated film. Director Chandor has an ability to make fluid, yet light brush strokes so that the story isn’t bogged down with overwrought dialogue or quasi confusing subplots.
Both Chastain and Isaac play their parts with sinewy, subtle shadings; you know who they are from the first time you see them. And through it all, you sense the history and volatile relationship the husband and wife have. They drive each other crazy, yet their love and passion for one another gets them through the hardest of times. He counters her fly-off-the-handle temper and thuggish decision making skills with a knowledge and self actualized philosophy that keeps both of them in check. And when it would seem she is the stronger of the two, Morales’ deft handling of situations bring about a well-executed finish that reveals he has always had the upper hand.
Who would’ve thought the wheeling and dealing with heating oil could be so fascinating and so corrupt? Obviously, Chandor did as he is the writer and director, and never lets the one sabotage the other. His direction is methodical, measured and mature.
Will A Most Violent Year do well during awards season? Probably not. It squeaked by at the end of the year, opening on December 31st in limited release, and while Chandor is a darling of the critics’ circle, he is still largely an unknown with mainstream audiences. Chastain is the only Golden Globe nominee from the film, which is a shame, since Isaac’s performance is the least showy of any other Globe nominated actor (Steve Carell, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jake Gyllenhaal, David Oyelowo and Eddie Redmayne) and also one of the best of the year.
For those seeking out mature, well plotted dramas that emphasize subtlety over flash, A Most Violent Year is a most unexpected pleasure.
A Most Violent Year opened on Dec. 31st in limited release, and will expand later this year. For Your Consideration rounds-up and reviews late year entries that will probably hold Oscar contention.