There is something distinctly old school about A Most Violent Year writer director J.C. Chandor. These days filmmakers have one good movie and the next thing you know they’re making franchise films, seeped in the money-machine of superheroes and Young Adult adaptations. But Chandor has made two stunning films in the shape of Margin Call, a dark look at the money-hungry world of modern day banking, and All Is Lost, an all encompassing man-at-sea drama, and for his third film he’s aiming for a period crime drama. There are no capes on display here, but instead a filmmaker in the vein of Sidney Lumet, one focused on characters and the slow-burn tension of putting them in impossible situations, flexing his cinematic muscles.
1981 was considered one of the most violent years in New York’s history. Amid the robbery, rape and murder Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is trying to buy some real estate to aid his company Standard Oil. But with the District Attorney (David Oyelowo) investigating him and someone continually jacking his trucks Abel is fighting an uphill battle. His wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) has other plans though and is willing to take more ruthless action in order for their family to thrive in this dog-eat-dog world.
There’s something powerfully quiet about A Most Violent Year. On paper it reads like a run-of-the-mill crime thriller, a man pushed to the edge in order to protect all he holds dear. But instead Chandor drip feeds us nuggets of information as he quietly dissects The American Dream. In this world, nothing comes easy. Morales is a good man, an honorable man, his name tells you as such, but outside influences, not to mention his Lady Macbeth like wife, are always conspiring against him. Or perhaps for him, and therein lies the film’s gravity, that while Abel is a moral man the same cannot be said for the world he occupies.
Crucially though Chandor isn’t interested in Michael Corleone descent into evil to become The Godfather. No, this is a man trying to maintain his business, trying to do maintain a sense of ethics as all around him turn their backs on their moral compasses. To emphasise the hope that Morales has Chandor shoots with a gold glint to everything, whether it’s the setting sun over New York, the cigarette stained walls of the industrial locations utilised or the warm glow of a burning fire, A Most Violent Year manages to juxtapose the chill of a New York winter with the desire for untold riches and the desperation to succeed.
It’s not a Wall Street simplicity of ‘greed is good’ but rather the right path to take at the right moment. Chastain encompasses this, her stunning yet venomous wife is a perfect foil to Abel’s gritted determination to remain on the correct side of the law. But it is Isaac who once again puts in the kind of performance that makes him a modern day great in the field of acting. He packs a level of self-belief into Abel, a sense of holding his head high with pride at what he has accomplished in the face of adversity.
A Most Violent Year is a quietly menacing little potboiler and a film that firmly cements J.C. Chandor as a filmmaker of huge talent and original vision.