‘A Most Violent Year’ Review: A Perfectly Crafted Thriller
A Most Violent Year, director JC Chandor’s highly anticipated follow up to last year’s critically acclaimed All Is Lost, elevates the classic gangster film with an almost Godfather-esque execution. Not only does the film feature amazing performances across the board, it is also a precise period piece, creating a beautifully filmed (and designed) crime drama with a hint of suspense and a dash of tragedy.
Of course, A Most Violent Year has very little in common with The Godfather films when it comes to the mechanics of the plot, though the oil business feuds in 1981 New York City certainly reminds one of the mafia. Oscar Isaac plays Abel Morales, the struggling patriarch and head of the Standard Heating Oil Co., a business suffering a string of car-jacking thefts. Abel is convinced his competitors, who make no secret of conducting their businesses like – well – mobsters, are behind it, but he has no proof and is bleeding money while gambling his life savings on a risky business venture. Despite his money problems, Abel remains steadfast in one thing: his desire to stay on the right side of the law and away from becoming a gangster.
Another huge difference between A Most Violent Year and The Godfather: it’s lack of guns. Gun violence, while a crucial plot point in the film, takes up very little screen time and is in no way glamorized. There is no giant shootout at the climax, nor are there any gruesome deaths. As Abel knows, guns may make things easier (or films more entertaining), but they are also terrifying and should not be played with – a message the film makes clear. Not only is there very little gun violence in the film, but you don’t miss it. The onslaught of gun fights onscreen may feel exciting to audiences, but in A Most Violent Year, JC Chandor proves it to be completely unnecessary to make a film suspenseful or create a life-and-death tension onscreen.
What truly separates A Most Violent Year from other gangster films released today is the screenplay. Screenplays, specifically those of thrillers or suspense films, tend to land in two categories: those with too much exposition and those with too little. Too much exposition, and the audiences figures out the resolution of the plot before it occurs on screen; too little and the resolution seems to have absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the story (I’m looking at you, True Detective). To avoid landing in either category, films either have to be so well made and well acted that the audience doesn’t care, or, as is most common, err on the side of too much exposition to ensure a smooth narrative for a majority of audiences. A Most Violent Year is an anomaly because it doesn’t fit in either category. The script doesn’t take pains to make any plot point clear, nor does it shy away from exploring small details that might complicate the narrative to the point of no return. It’s perfectly balanced, making the suspense and thrill that much more exciting and rewarding.
It’s so rare to see a film so subtly complex that, as someone used to being spoon-fed the setup, I found myself grasping a bit throughout the opening scenes. Was Abel good or bad? Was he a mobster? He sure looked like one, standing in a sweeping tan coat holding a briefcase full of cash. This uncertainty was not confusing, however, it was refreshing. While Abel’s character is established relatively quickly, the mystery that surrounds him in the opening scenes persists throughout the film and extends to every single other character on screen. His wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), for example, is attracted to Abel’s desire to run an honorable business, but is also angry when he refuses to break the law to protect the family and their business. Other supporting characters, such as district attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo) and Abel’s lawyer Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks) are similarly walking a line between what is lawful and what is beneficial. No character is one-dimensional, and no character is truly good or bad.
This is, in no small part, due to the impressive cast. Isaac gives what could be his greatest performance to date, and Chastain, who earned a Golden Globe nomination for her performance, is brilliant, as always. Oyelowo, recently nominated for a Golden Globe for his leading role in Selma, is equally captivating in what little screen time he has, and Elyes Gabel (Scorpion) is absolutely heartbreaking as Julian, a truck driver who gets beaten at the beginning of the film.
A Most Violent Year, which has suffered from an awkward New Year’s Eve release date and sleepy press, will likely be overlooked this award season, and that’s a shame – not only for Chandor and its stars, Chastain and Isaac, but also for cinematographer Bradford Young (Selma), who creates an artfully gritty picture of New York City. With that in mind, be careful not to let this wonderful film pass you by.