Director: J.C. Chandor
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Albert Brooks, Alessandro Nivola, Elyes Gabel
Written by: J.C. Chandor
Running Time: 125 mins
Release date: 23rd January 2015
If you’re considering seeing A Most Violent Year because you are under the apprehension that this is going to be a blood-bath, you may need to look elsewhere. This is a smoldering character piece that offers so much but ultimately delivers very little.
Abel Morales is an ambitious businessman trying to develop his oil company in 1981 New York. With a deal under way for a large piece of land, Abel is having to cope with his trucks being hijacked, a District Attorney refusing to help, instead wanting to prosecute him for irregularities and a bank that may not lend him the necessary funds for the purchasing transactions. His wife, Anna, wants him to be tougher but Abel refuses to behave like a gangster, knowing that violence is never the answer.
Writer and director J.C. Chandor, who made the hugely impressive All Is Lost, comes at this film with the intentions of capturing The Godfather’s sense of menace. It starts like a slow boiling pan of water, as we watch Abel trying to keep his business together by being completely legitimate. All the while, you feel that as the pressure builds, the screen may at any moment explode. Yet that boiling pan seems only to simmer throughout, leaving you wanting more. Because of that, the film is nothing more than an interesting character study with a Macbeth style relationship at the heart of it.
The look of the film is glorious. Capturing the period superbly. Bradford Young’s camera work is reminiscent of the cinematography of Gordon Willis in The Godfather, especially noticeable during a restaurant scene where Abel meets his competition. It has that feel of the Coppola classic, the young enterprising man not wanting to use violence, instead building an empire out of honesty and hard work. Yet behind him is a wife who has more guts than he has, whose past of being the daughter of a gangster has certainly brushed off on her.
These elements all work well, yet you feel unsatisfied. It’s like going into an expensive restaurant, with all the plush trimmings, nice cutlery and atmospere but then being fed a McDonald’s. Everything is there to make this a classic, yet the story is virtually non-existent. After two hours, you are given a pay-off that makes you say “Is that it?”
As I said earlier, the performances are terrific. Albert Brooks, who turned his career around after his shocking part in Drive, is back playing straight as Andrew Walsh, Abel’s controlling lawyer who you never really know what’s going on inside his head. Brit David Oyelowo, to be seen soon as Martin Luther King in Selma, does a good job as District Attorney Lawrence and Elyes Gabel is a ball of nervous energy as truck driver, Julian, who gets into more trouble than its worth.
The film, however, belongs to Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain. Isaac, as Abel, keeping with The Godfather theme, looks the spitting image of a young Al Pacino. he masterfully underplays most scenes, as a man stuck in a moral dilemma. His ideal is not using violence as a solution, yet he is surrounded by it. There’s plenty of subtleties and silences, quietly confident yet spiraling out of control. Isaac is an actor who could be the star of the year, with his roles in Ex_Machina and, of course, the new Star Wars still to come this year.
The real star of this piece is Jessica Chastain. Proving she is a talent worth noting after Zero Dark Thirty, here she is magnificent as Anna, a woman who refuses to be just a wife and instead is the driving force behind everything. Her scenes with Isaac make the film crackle into life, yet there’s not enough of them, which is a shame. As Isaac is Michael Coleone, she is Sonny, or even the Don. Once again, she has been sadly ignored at the Oscars. One day soon, she will be holding up that golden trophy.
A Most Violent Year is not a bad film by a long shot. The look, the feel, the tension is all there. It just doesn’t go anywhere and you leave feeling empty and wondering what could have been.