Film Review | A Most Violent Year
If there’s one thing which is clear about writer-director J. C. Chandor by now, it’s that he likes to switch it up. His debut feature Margin Call was a talky, deservedly Oscar-nominated financial drama with dialogue to spare. It was followed by the Robert Redford-starring All is Lost, a survivalist drama with hardly any speech at all. For his third feature Chandor has once again opted for something completely different, fashioning a sharp and sophisticated film about the heating oil industry that may be his most satisfying work to date.
Set in a wintery 1981 New York, A Most Violent Year follows Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), a Latin-American immigrant who, along with his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), has his sights set on closing a deal that will expand his heating oil company and give him the edge over his competitors. For that to happen, Abel will have to overcome some potentially crippling external obstacles; His drivers are getting assaulted by thugs who are then stealing fuel from his trucks, the local D.A. (David Oyelowo) is mounting a case against him, and a shadowy figure looms outside his new home. Even as the screws tighten though, Abel is determined to go about his business in the right way.
The precursors of A Most Violent Year are evident throughout; we’re very much in The Godfather/Serpico/Scarface territory here, and Bradford Young’s typically inspired cinematography along with some equally classy costume design convincingly recreate the gritty 80’s aesthetic. Additionally, Chandor’s directing never feels anything less than calculating, and though the film is a slow burn it’s consistently riveting.
A lot of that can be attributed to the gripping moral conundrum that faces Isaac’s Abel, a meditation on how much you have to sacrifice morally and personally to climb the professional ladder. In this regard, Chandor’s latest may make a perfect double feature with Whiplash, another film about how much to sacrifice for the sake of realising the ambition to be the best.
For a film which is titled A Most Violent Year, there is perhaps not as much violence as you might expect, with Chandor largely favouring implied action over actually realising threats. That’s not to say there aren’t bouts of intensity from time to time, and in those memorable moments the violence is arresting and very, very loud. Indeed, guns have seldom felt more dangerous than they do here.
Year is anchored by two of the best talents working today. Javier Bardem was initially set to play Abel before Isaac was attached, but now it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the part. There are many subtleties and nuances to Abel but Isaac never overplays it, cutting a magnetic presence throughout. In scenes with Chastain’s Anna the movie reaches another level; like the couple they play, the two thespians complement one another perfectly, their chemistry simmering from scene to scene. It’s a mild disappointment that Chastain feels a touch underused, but her impact is no less resounding.
Deliciously meticulous in its pacing, acting and directing, A Most Violent Year is perhaps the strongest entry yet in Chandor’s filmography. If he can make a film about heating oil this compelling, whatever he makes next – no matter how mundane sounding the subject matter – will have our undivided attention.