90%Overall Score
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84%

The third knockout for writer/director J.C. Chandor and one of the first great movies of 2015

 

Writer/director J.C. Chandor’s third film (and third great film) A Most Violent Year is a slow-burn, anti-crime story that showcases some serious talent both behind and in front of the camera. It is already a contender for the best film of 2015, despite its release at the very end of last year. With exceptional performances by two of the best actors working today, a high point of a young cinematographer’s blooming career, and a hat-trick for a newer director, A Most Violent Year has all the makings of something fantastic.

 

 

A Most Violent Year is named as such for the time and place in which it takes place: New York City in 1981. That year set a saddening record for murders, rapes, and overall crime in the city, and the story focuses on one man just trying to survive while keeping his pride intact. Oscar Isaac plays Abel Morales, a business owner working with heating oil constantly in cahoots with his many competitors in the heart and outskirts of NYC. His wife, Anna, played by Jessica Chastain, supports him, sometimes in more was than he would like. She’s the daughter of a New York mob boss, and was raised in the lifestyle. She values her family, but isn’t afraid to get in the way when need be. Abel himself has the unfortunate burden of living and working in a gangster world, where crime runs rampant and guns are a common accessory, but he himself would prefer to use words over bullets, reasoning over hostility. He believes in having pride with what you do and finding success using nobility and respect. In some ways, he’s a gangster through and through, but not the kind that intimidates the others. When an unknown source starts hiring goons to steal his oil trucks, thus quickly crippling his business, Abel starts to question whether or not his way of life is the right one.

 

 

Writer/director J.C. Chandor is on a roll. His feature directorial debut from 2011, Margin Call, was visually dazzling and enormously entertaining. His follow-up, 2013’s All is Lost, was incredibly ambitious and a fantastic showcase for the aged Robert Redford. Both films had something new and unique to add to the ever-boring pot of recent films, and A Most Violent Year is no different. As a director, Chandor’s future is incredibly bright, as long as he keeps up this streak of working with remarkable talent. One such talent is the young and bright cinematographer, Bradford Young, who washes the NYC world with a yellow-sepia look that creates a rich and warm palette which accentuates the early 1980s visual culture. Couple that with the truly unique framing he uses as his staple and the film is absolutely gorgeous. The skyline shots are stunning, and Young manages to bring the steam-filled, litter-rich suburban outskirts an exceptional visual flair. The whole thing feels authentic, and the excellent costumes and overall production design benefits from it. Add in an immersive score from composer Alex Ebert and you have a truly stacked package that all comes together beautifully.

 

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I was first exposed to leading man Oscar Isaac in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive in 2011. Even then, I knew the guy had the talent to go places, and he has yet to disappoint even a little bit since then. He has a quiet intensity in his performances that one could easily relate to a young Dustin Hoffman, with eyes that can have a quick glance tell you all you need to know and then some. He’s always just one more mishap away from an emotional explosion, and his performance as Abel is no exception. Jessica Chastain is no stranger to great performances, and hers here is by no means a surprise to anybody. Her personality as Anna is similar to Abel’s, but while both are intelligent with their patience, Anna’s mobster influence gives her a hairier trigger finger, both literally and figuratively. Supporting characters include David Oyelowo as Detective Lawrence, looking to find a kink in Abel’s operation, and Albert Brooks, Abel’s friend and attorney. Both give expectedly fantastic performances.

 

 

In my experience, “gangster” films tend to have somebody looking to get into the life, but not often do we see somebody trying so hard to avoid it. Such is the refreshing direction J.C. Chandor takes in this harrowing account of values, morals, and ambitions, which makes the tale worth telling and the film worth seeing. Some may argue that certain scenes may drag, or that some sequences may be “boring,” and I’m almost inclined to agree. But it’s the great performances and rich cinematography that draw you in so you never actually find yourself bored. Besides, who doesn’t want to pay the ticket price to hear Oscar Isaac yelling? That’s worth the run-time alone.

 

 

About The Author

Steve Carley

Steve Carley is a Michigan-born lover and resident of the film industry in Atlanta, Georgia. When he's not infiltrating the nearest Waffle House or giving up on the most recent movie-adapted book he can be seen lounging in his apartment complex's pool and regretting the way he wrote his Film Takeout bio.