A Most Violent Year

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UK Release Date 23rd January 2015
Director J C Chandor
Starring Isaacs, Chastain
Runtime 125 Minutes
Certificate 15
Reviewer Jo
Reviewed 23rd January 2015

Oscar Isaacs and Jessica Chastain are outstanding in JC Chandor’s fascinating, foreboding ‘anti violence’ crime movie, A Most Violent Year. A captivating master class in how to do period with panache (take note American Hustle). It’s a riveting and powerful film. Reminiscent in tone (though not in violence) of Carlito’s Way, Death Wish, The Departed, State of Grace - A Most Violent Year is a quiet, slow burning and powerful drama.   

It is 1981 and the most violent year of recorded crime history in New York. Abel Morales is an immigrant climbing up the ladder of the ultra competitive fuel business rapidly. So rapidly in fact that it’s upsetting someone along the line and his trucks are being targeted and his drivers savagely beaten. Morales is loathed to use violence, he ignores pleas from his men and his wife to step up, arm them and himself. At what cost? One of his drivers with whom Abel has a personal connection take things into his own hands and with the Feds breathing down his neck Abel’s personal reputation crumbles and his American Dream seems to begin slipping through his hands.  

An powerful opening scene sees Morales striding through a stark snowy covered landscape to a huge waterfront storage facility, a place he has long dreamt of buying from the Hasidic Jews who own it. It’s a bold step up the rung of the greasy ladder he is trying to climb. Morales gazes out across the river at Manhattan, gleaming and glittering: a visual representation of everything Morales desires: success, wealth, security and acceptance.  

Abel presents himself as an honest, non-violent man in a corrupt world and but Abel is an unreliable narrator. He says he is non violent, that he is not corrupt but we see snatches of actions that belie the words out of his mouth. Softly spoken and brooding he is a fascinating character study and one that even as the credits rolled we hadn’t quite got the full measure of. There is no getting around Abel’s naked ambition, he teaches his sales people psychological trickery to ensure they think they need his fuel, that his is the best. The family are moving into a huge luxury house surrounded by woodlands. Abel wants it all but without the usual violent cost. Is this really possible in this cutthroat industry he inhabits? 

It was an article on 1981 and the level of violence in New York that prompted Chandor to make a movie set in an extremely violent year that wasn’t about violence. It’s a fascinating and bold choice.  Chandor has created a tense, atmospheric drama that doesn’t put a foot wrong. The tension is palpable from the opening scene to the closing credits and yet there is very little action. Dialogue is never wasted. I haven’t seen Margin Call or All Is Lost (I know I know…) but will most definitely put them to the top of the must see list. Chandor is a rare talent.  

Oscar Isaacs is just devastating as Morales. Stocky, weary, with grey flecks in his hair, it’s a million miles away from Llewellyn Davis and is a triumphant portrayal of a complex man trying to do the right thing.  Isaac’s Morales is a softly spoken, determined powerhouse. A complex fish swimming upstream in  corrupted waters.  We never really get to grips with what level of ‘good’ Morales is but Isaacs constantly infuses Morales with believability and integrity.  It’s a bewitching performance.  

Jessica Chastain is Anna, Morales’ wife and right hand woman although she’s not quite sticking to the straight and narrow road Abel yearns for. We are told her father was a gangster and she certainly seems to be one more inclined to take the darker path in order to protect what they have. Like the love child of Michelle Pfeiffer in Scarface, Chastain’s Anna is savvy and determined with decidedly looser morals. I suspect if I came home to my toddler playing with a loaded gun it may make me seek a more effective way of protecting them too. Anna is the business bookkeeper and has some ‘creative’ ways of keeping the family afloat.  Anna is presented as somewhat of a Lady Macbeth but Abel is complicit is hiding boxes away from the Feds and although he acts innocent and offended we didn’t always buy it. It's not certain Morales himself buys it, the character is so wonderfully conflicted and multi layered. An emotional onion. There’s no doubt though that Anna has bigger balls (reference the brilliant deer scene) than Abel and Chastain is undoubtedly having some fun with playing her. It’s a joy to watch.  

Chastain and Isaacs have some good support in the shape of an unrecognisable Albert Brooks as Morales right hand man and lawyer trying to persuade him to take the obvious violent route. The always excellent David Oyelowo is a shade under used as DA chasing Morales and Anna, Lawrence. A scene between Chastain and Oyelowo when the police turn up at the Morales residence during a children’s party is enormous fun. Eleyes Gabel is also one to watch, his performance as troubled driver Julian is heartbreaking.   

A Most Violent Year is resplendent in it’s design. Production design by John Goldsmith creates period without kitsch. Chandor added graffiti in post production which helped create the roughed up New York of the 80’s but the locations have been cleverly and carefully chosen and it is never over the top. A key scene of Abel chasing one of his high-jacked trucks through New York culminates at an old disused terminal. Isaacs fell over whilst filming this because he is wearing loafers, not sneakers and Chandor kept it in. It’s a visceral and non gratuitous action scene.

Costume by Kasia Walicka-Maimone is sharp and sassy, it’s certainly one of the most classy period movies of recent times. Chastain’s Anna is never once dressed gratuitously (an easy trap to fall into given the character’s background) and Morales has a simple business like attire that is timeless and period. Chandor and DP Bradford Young have created a muted pallet of blues and greens, dark strong colours. Alex Evert’s cogitative and affecting score underlines and emphasises the quiet drama in all the right places. 

The Oscars have roundly ignored A Most Violent Year but we all know that Oscars are not really a reflection of what is good. Don't we? Anyway it is a shame that Chandor Isaacs and Chastain have not been nominated though because this is a highly accomplished, beautiful, thoughtful and significant piece of filmmaking.  Chandor is going from strength to strength and we eagerly await his next move.  

Check out the trailer here.

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