A Most Violent Year

Directed By: J. C. Chandor

Starring: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola, and Albert Brooks

Margin Call, All Is Lost, and A Most Violent Year all have something in common, and it's not just that they're the first three feature films by prolific director J. C. Chandor.  These terrific movies have not gotten the recognition they deserve at the culmination of awards season.  The corporate thriller Margin Call about the 2008 financial crisis notched just one Oscar nomination for best original screenplay.  Similarly, the survival drama All Is Lost received only one nod for best original score.  Chandor's latest film A Most Violent Year, a tense, gripping crime drama, received no recognition whatsoever.  Given the three feature films he's made so far, Chandor is perhaps the next great American director.  However, the politics of awards season have resulted in his films not getting the recognition they deserve.  I mention hidden gems like Chandor in some form or fashion every year.  Regardless, it's especially true in the case of A Most Violent Year.

It's 1981.  After nearly twenty years of hard work, things are finally starting to pay off for Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac).  With the purchase of some rather pricy waterfront property in New York with a capacity to store huge amounts of fuel, Abel's dream of a fuel empire is becoming a tangible reality.  Even after signing a contract and putting down forty percent on the property — the equivalent of his life savings — however, there are still some looming challenges that could turn Abel's dream into a nightmare.  In the most violent year in New York City to date, Abel's fuel trucks are getting hijacked day after day, costing him more than 110,000 gallons of fuel or approximately $213,000.  District Attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo) is indicting Abel for multiple counts of fraud, corruption, and tax evasion.  Abel's bank is even re-evaluating whether they should do business with him, putting his down payment on the waterfront property in jeopardy.  As the walls close in on Abel, he can only really turn to his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) and his close advisor Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks).

I've got nothing but love for A Most Violent Year.  Delivering a poignant, brooding drama, director J. C. Chandor continues along this path of proving himself on all fronts.  His latest piece of cinema is a dark, intense film that in many ways is reminiscent of The Godfather movies.  Like Francis Ford Coppola's most enduring works, A Most Violent Year is a potent film in which the rich dialogue supersedes all else.  When violence does take center stage on those rare occasions, it always is sudden and turbulent in nature.  Marked by brownish gritty cinematography, sharp set design, and flashy make-up and costume design, the movie harkens back to the early 80s in just the right way.  Moreover, A Most Violent Year is a fascinating film that will grab hold of you and never let go.

It is well-documented on this site that screen legend Al Pacino is my favorite thespian.  I don't write this lightly, but Oscar Isaac becomes that young Pacino to whom the world was introduced back in the 70s for his performance as Abel Morales.  Fittingly, he resembles the iconic Michael Corleone from The Godfather Part II.  Giving an intense, insular performance, Isaac both looks and acts the part.  Exuding confidence as he tries to realize his American dream via the most right path, Isaac has an undeniable swagger and a moral compass that harkens back to the don.  Similar to Pacino, there's a fire within him that only boils over in the tensest of moments.  While I won't break out the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, I've got to say that it's a real shame that this outstanding performance from Oscar Isaac has not been recognized by the Academy.

Surprisingly, I can say the same thing as it relates to Jessica Chastain's turn as Anna Morales.  Giving what is perhaps the toughest and most intriguing performance of her career to date, Chastain is the shark of A Most Violent Year.  There's a darkness within her deceptively sensual character.  Chastain lures the audience in with a seductive smile.  When we least expect it, she shows the thornier side of her character and that she will furiously do anything and everything to protect her interests, no matter the moral implications.  Chastain uses warmth and humanity to mask one truly cold fish willing to get down and dirty.  It's a brilliant performance that hits the mark time and time again throughout this crime drama.

There's also a strong bench of supporting cast members hard at work in A Most Violent Year.  There are two standouts in particular.  For his part as Andrew Walsh, Albert Brooks is a consigliere of sorts for Abel’s dirty fuel business.  Offering edgy, caustic wit and plenty of levity, Brooks gives off a certain gangster vibe that really accentuates this crime drama.  Fresh from Selma, David Oyelowo gives us one slippery fish as District Attorney Lawrence.  There's a quiet confidence and menace in his character that's perfectly encapsulated in his killer smiles.  He's a welcome delight on screen.

It should come as no surprise that A Most Violent Year gets a sober rating.  J. C. Chandor once again knocks it out of the park with this one.  He puts an American dream that once was real at the front and center of the film as his characters struggle and scramble for socioeconomic status, often without regard to ethical implications.  In doing so, he may just be saying that the rosy American dream with picket fences and money in the bank has been a myth all along.