A Most Violent Year, 2014.
Written and Directed by J.C. Chandor.
Starring Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola, Ashley Williams, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Elyes Gabel and Albert Brooks.
In New York City 1981, an ambitious immigrant fights to protect his business and family during the most dangerous year in the city’s history.
Watching A Most Violent Year I couldn’t help but think of some of the truly great artists from 1970’s American cinema. Men such as Sidney Lumet, Martin Scorsese, William Friedkin, Al Pacino, Gordon Willis and Vilmos Zsigmond were instrumental in the films I grew up watching as ‘serious’ movies once I was aware of film making as an art form and not just as spectacle. The fact that I’m opening this review by mentioning these legendary artists tells you all you need to know about how I strong I feel about director J.C. Chandor’s third film.
Too few films since the end of the New Hollywood era have successfully captured the decay and relentless gloom of a morally bankrupt city and society in the way J.C. Chandor has done in A Most Violent Year; but the director and his DOP Bradford Young have gone one better than even those highly successful effort such as James Mangold’s Cop Land, Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace, or James Grey’s The Yards; you feel like you’re watching a film shot in New York in 1981. This isn’t famous faces playing dress-up nor does source music masquerade as authenticity as found in recent ‘prestige’ pictures like American Hustle.
The marketing material may lead you to think this as another gangster movie where our lead is up against it from all sides, we see his empire grow, his wife causes all kinds of chaos, and where it all ends in a mass shootout. It is far from it (thankfully) for this is a film where there are few standout sequences which you’d point out as being memorable, but where every single scene is integral to the story and there is no fat to trim in two hours.
All three of Chador’s films (Margin Call and All Is Lost being his previous work) are seemingly different to the next but all three are tightly focused on a small number of players which puts character first and plot mechanics a distant second. In Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) Chandor shows us an immigrant in search of the American dream through his own legitimate oil business, but a man who is faced with corruption and violence at every turn. His moral compass is more centred than anyone else’s in this particular corner of New York City but his resolve is getting stretched from the very start and the question of whether or not he will yield hangs over the film and long after it finishes.
Despite its title the film spans only 30 days where Morales needs to put down money to secure a place of operation and confront the on-going crime wave he is faced with where his trucks are being stolen. His wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) controls the company books but she dress like a gangster’s moll at times and despite her best efforts to guide Abel down the path of least resistance and fall in line with the rest, his resolve to stay legit is what makes him such an interesting character. The film ends on a note which suggests Morales will go on to become a very powerful man in the city and will be forced to line the pockets of many men to keep his place at the top, but the beauty of this story isn’t in seeing that, it’s in the getting to the point.
Like Serpico turning into Michael Coleone, Oscar Isaac is at a level here where comparisons to Pacino are earned and that is one of the best honours a young actor could possibly have. I’ve seen him in several films before now and he’s always stood out as a good performer but this is a career-making performance and he becomes Abel Morales similarly as Pacino became Michael Corleone. Is that to say both characters and films are at the same level? Of course not, but the acting range displayed here has to be mentioned in the same context. Similarly Jessica Chastain continues to show the world why she’s the most exciting and versatile actress working in Hollywood today; her dressing down of the District Attorney is a real scene-stealer.
Such is the level of period detail, working in perfect unison with lighting which reminds us of Gordon Willis’ finest work (I say ‘reminds’ not is ‘equal to’) and wide shots which can capture entire cityscapes or a solitary man an open street, the film feels authentic with every scene, word, and technique. The directional prowess on display here is equal to that of the most celebrated films of the same of year (think Birdman, Interstellar, Boyhood) yet you won’t notice what Chandor is doing because that is the point; similar to the aforementioned James Grey, Chandor values the basics of direction above all else. A tight shot, a wide angle, a slow zoom, a tracking shot, simple reverse shots; great story tellers use the basics so well we rarely even notice it, only upon reflection.
Moreover, Bradford Young’s understanding of how minimum lighting and shadow can convey the mood of an era is something which evokes the work of the greats he may aspire to one day. One look at his previous films and I see 2013’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints which I lavished the same level of praise as I do this film and where the cinematography stood out as exceptional once again.
The word is keep coming back to is ‘authenticity’ and where so many films feel false, put on or overly written, this one just gets it all right. Ever last detail in design, writing, casting and direction is right for this contained chapter of a much larger story. Sat in the cinema I sensed I was watching, what for me personally, a landmark American movie of the modern era because I unapologetically love the era of film making it evokes. Some may not react as strongly I did, and that’s fine, too, but the first viewing of A Most Violent Year will stay with me for all time.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Rohan Morbey – follow me on Twitter.