Now that the Oscars are over I’m going to continue my movie reviews with a huge snub. For whatever reason, the critically acclaimed A Most Violent Year was not even on any radars this Oscars season, which is strange considering it features so many critic-pleasing characteristics — a unique premise, moral quandaries, superb performances, gripping drama, crafty action, and that solemn, Oscar-bait feel of a top-class production.
Written and directed by JC Chandor (previously best known for Margin Call), A Most Violent Year is set in 1981, widely regarded as one of New York’s most violent years. Oscar Isaac (Finding Llewyn Davis, The Two Faces of January) is Abel Morales, the seemingly upright owner of a heating oil company on the verge of a major breakthrough. But when his oil trucks begin to get hijacked, making him to lose not just money but also precious reputation, Abel finds himself being painted into a corner and forced to take drastic action. At the same time, a local assistant district attorney (David Oyelowo) begins to target Abel for alleged anti-competitive practices and tax evasion.
A Most Violent Year, despite its name, is not a particularly violent movie by today’s standards. What it lacks in violence, the film makes up in tension, atmosphere and style, though the presentation is grounded firmly in reality. In an age where protagonists are typically remarkable people with otherworldly skills, experiences or attributes, Abel is portrayed as an ordinary man with real fears and emotions like you and me. Unlike typical modern crime thrillers, are no criminal masterminds in this film, no outrageous coincidences, no expert marksmen or world-class racing car drivers in getaway cars.
And yet, rather than coming across as dull, the film becomes actually more compelling because it enables us to genuinely sympathise and empathise with the characters and their predicaments. Overexposure to onscreen surrealism has made most of us numb, so it’s refreshing to be reminded that, hey, guns are scary; dealing with mafia people is scary; burglars are scary; police looking into your business — even if it’s perfectly legitimate — is scary.
None of this would have been possible, of course, without Chandor’s skilful direction and script, which prove that he is a filmmaker who has clearly studied the classic works of the genre and the techniques of the masters. Rather than loud and shaky, the action sequences are smooth, slick and suspenseful, notwithstanding the lack of explosions and rapid cuts. Rather than pretentious and dull, the silences and lingering shots actually have meaning.
The other key element is the central performance by Isaac, who is destined for stardom and will apparently appear in the next Star Wars movies. He’s a tremendous talent who deserved recognition for this controlled and charismatic performance where anger, desperation and fear are all delivered with nuance and subtlety. It’s perhaps not a stretch to say he channels a young Al Pacino’s portrayal of Michael Corleone.
All of the supporting actors are very good too, especially Jessica Chastain as Abel’s astute wife, whose father is implied as not being the most upstanding citizen. David Oyelowo, who got a whole lot of attention at the Oscars ceremony for his Selma snub, is also solid, as are Albert Brooks as Abel’s lawyer and Elyes Gabel as one of Abel’s troubled employees.
I will readily admit that it is not a film for most modern average movie-goers, who tend to expect a lot of things to happen on the screen at all times. A Most Violent Year has a deliberately measured pace I would have found slow in my youth, and it adopts a “less in more” mentality in its execution some might find dull. While it is undeniably interesting, I would not be surprised if others wonder what the fuss is all about.
This is a ultimately story about a good man trying to survive in a corrupt world, and having to make some very difficult choices and compromises along the way. Gritty and brooding, and powered by Chandor’s self-assured approach, A Most Violent Year harks back to crime classics like Goodfellas, Heat and even The Godfather. It’s of course not quite on the level of those epics, but it is still a classy, well-executed film that commands your attention and respect.
4.25 stars out of 5