Life + Arts Movies

‘A Most Violent Year’ offers up more intrigue than actual violence


It’s 1981 — one of the most violent years in the history of New York. Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is attempting to buy a new piece of land that will expand his oil heating business. Scrambling to get the money together, Abel is in a tough position because his trucks are being stolen and he’s losing business.

His best-friend and gangster buddy Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks) suggests that he take action, but Abel doesn’t want to resort to violence. His wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), is even more inclined to take action because her family’s safety is being put at risk. Her father owned the company before Abel bought it, but he left many things to be investigated by the district attorney (David Oyelowo). The shady world around Abel makes running an honest, clean business difficult.

“A Most Violent Year” is a slow-build that yields incredible rewards in terms of acting, storytelling and film-making. The film depicts the intricacies of running and maintaining a business in crime-ridden New York City, and emphasizes the dangers of business when you have something everyone else wants. Focusing on morals and the drive that compels men to act, “A Most Violent Year” highlights the immense struggle of trying to take care of matters in a clean and efficient method.

Director J.C. Chandor clearly and effectively transmits his thoughts to the screen. In “A Most Violent Year,” Chandor gives us what feels like an inside look into the gasoline business in a time where crime is running rampant. His use of dialogue immediately piques the audience’s interest, and his ability to tell a story without having to be eccentric is admirable. He turns what would be a dreary story for other filmmakers into a compelling film.

In terms of direction, Chandor stylistically employs many techniques which help clue the audience in to what’s going on, while retaining some mystery about what will happen next. The scenic backgrounds are rightfully used as props, which these characters effectively use. There’s a lot of focus and buildup surrounding the deal and everything that it means.

Chandor doesn’t focus only on his lead characters. He provides input from the workers, the bankers, the District Attorney and even the competition. This inclusion gives us a sense of all the factors going into Isaac’s decisions and how he moves forward, hoping to secure the deal.

Oscar Isaac should change his name to Oscar-worthy Isaac, because he yet again provides us with a phenomenal performance that stands out in an already competitive year. His performance takes time to appreciate; he’s the golden boy in a group of gangsters. He offers up many great speeches, and his calm, controlled interactions with most of the business men are electric. When he erupts with rage, he becomes frightening and intimidating, commanding the screen and chewing up all his lines. More than anything, his non-violent demeanor and attempts to stay peaceful contrast the world he inhabits.

Jessica Chastain isn’t as involved as you’d think or like, but she uses her screen time well. She may seem like a subjugated housewife, but Chastain makes it clear that she’s holding all the cards in the family with the looks she gives, the plays she makes and the few words she needs to make things clear to Isaac. She’s ruthlessly graceful, and her New York accent makes her all the more appealing.

“A Most Violent Year” is perhaps the most quietly brilliant films of this year. More of Chastain’s character and more about her character’s past would be helpful, but neither of those make this film worse. J.C. Chandor offers up his most accessible film here, and it’s not crazy to imagine it ending up on many “Best Of” lists. This is the perfect film for someone seeking something a bit different.

“A Most Violent Year” is now playing in Houston.

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