When I Was 17, It Was "A Most Violent Year"... Review

You'll never do anything harder than staring someone in the eye and telling the truth.

J.C. Chandor has had one hell of a start as a writer-director. First came his film about the financial collapse, Margin Call (2011). Then All is Lost (2013), his film with Robert Redford struggling to survive a yachting misadventure. Then, late last year, came his third film, A Most Violent Year (2014), an American tale of a semi-crooked businessman making a land deal during the most violent year in the history of New York City. Next year, he's slated to release a film about the Deepwater Horizon disaster. When people bemoan the lack of original voices and serious subject matter in films, point them to J.C. Chandor and the unbroken string of subtle, interesting, and brilliantly acted movies.

In 1981, there were more assaults, rapes, and murders in New York City than ever before (or ever since). Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), a self-made man in the oil business, is closing a major deal for a terminal that would vault him to the top. His wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), runs the books and is even more ruthless than he is. When their oil trucks keep getting hijacked, she's for turning to violent means to protect their business while Abel struggles for moral and pragmatic reasons to avoid that reaction. But the drivers are scared and on driver, Julian (Elyes Gabel), takes a gun with him and begins a downward spiral for Abel endangering the land deal and, with it, the entire business. All the while, A.D.A. Lawrence (David Oyelowo) is on a fishing expedition to unearth the well known corruption in the oil business.

A Most Violent Year is a quiet pressure cooker, wrapped up entirely in Oscar Isaac's performance. Like last year's Locke (2014), the central performances bring you in so close that you feel the impact of little annoyances or plot twists with all of the strength that the characters do. What might be a small occurrence in another film, like a driver exchanging non-lethal gunfire with some thieves, is a major disaster. Further, again as in Locke, it's Abel (pronounced AH-bell) deep moral code and endless capacity that allows the story to subvert our usual sense of menace. Having to borrow money from the mob becomes emotional peril, but when faced with a loaded gun, one just waits, interested, to see how Abel chooses to resolve it. It's a masterful combination of writing and performance.

Isaac's performance is reminiscent of Al Pacino's from The Godfather: Part II (1974)--perhaps distractingly so--bringing New York mannerisms to a slow-burning fuse. If you're up to date in your movie watching, you can probably guess from the cast that the rest of the ensemble is terrific. I didn't mention that Albert Brooks is also in the film as Abel's morally vague attorney. The performances are excellent, but it is the cinematography and pacing of the film that make A Most Violent Year exceptional. Bradford Young, also the cinematographer for Selma (2014), creates a warm, dark texture to the film that looks spectacular on Blu-ray. There are a couple scenes that ironically feature turned-off light switches while the characters are engaged in some murky behavior.

This movie really stands between The Godfather (1972) and Goodfellas (1990) in many ways. The look of the film is as nostalgic and dark as The Godfather, but is as sharp and alive as Goodfellas. With story, The Godfather is an American epic, Goodfellas tells you how it works, and A Most Violent Year is both, subtly serving each of those ambitions. Everything strives to place itself between the mythical nature of The Godfather and the brutal cynicism of Goodfellas.

Bonus features

Commentary with the writer-director and producers Neal Dodson and Anna Gerb, Behind the Vioence, Conversations with Chastain and Isaac, two promotional videos about fighting violence ("We Can Cure Violence" and "The Contagious Nature of Violence: The Origins of A Most Violent Year"), deleted scenes, trailers, and "Inner City Crew" (the opening scene with the crew running alongside Oscar Isaac).

"A Most Violent Year" is on sale April 7, 2015 and is rated R. Drama. Directed by Jc Chandor. Written by J.C. Chandor. Starring David Oyelowo, Jessica Chastain, Oscar Isaac.

Jason Ratigan • Staff Writer

A lawyer-turned-something-else with a strong appreciation for film and television.  He knows he can't read every great book ever written, but seeing every good movie ever made is absolutely doable.  Check out his other stuff on Wordpress.


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