Director: J.C. Chandor
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Albert Brooks
Spoilers Within: No
Film 14 – #4 in ‘The Hard Drive Randomiser’
A Most Violent Year – the third directing credit of J.C. Chandor – is a successful combination of period thriller and suburban drama, exhibiting the struggles and powerlessness of maintaining self-respect in what has been verified as the most brutal year for criminal disturbances in New York’s history.
In 1981, Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) – an immigrant owner of an oil delivery business – is under pressure from multiple sides to fight violence with violence when a number of his delivery trucks are hijacked by low-key criminals looking to sell the product on the black-market. With the looming threat of losing a newly purchased oil terminal, and the investigations into his and his wife’s past (herself the daughter-of-a-mobster), as well as the constant demands to arm his drivers, Morales’ safety hangs perilously in the balance.
A Most Violent Year is a far more interesting and level tempered film than I had imagined: having it set in such a tumultuous time for the city, yet forgoing explicit acts of violence that give the film its title lends support to its ‘desperate times call for desperate measures’ rationale. By keeping the brutality to sudden assaults in close proximity to the main characters rather than extended bloody carnage that could be expected from a film with this moniker, there sits a perpetual fear that something terrible could happen at any moment, permeating the already atmospheric chill of a wintery New York. The second act chase scene is absolutely thrilling and though it’s well shot and scored (much like the film’s entirety) it’s the outcome of these blood-pumping moments that strengthen the scene: with avoidance of an all-out shoot-out, Chandor eschewed expected conclusions, furthering the subtle panic when the gunshot or the punch doesn’t come. This aforementioned car chase was one of the best in recent years: never cutting to the driver of the hijacked truck, but holding on Morales as he chases his stolen investment. It’s supremely tense, and this resolution in the train station is punchy, aggressive, and violent, but not as much as you’d suppose. It’s human and messy, but never gratuitous or cartoonish.
Isaac is as terrific as ever: magnetic and curious in equal parts, his potential for violence in pursuit of the American dream is seldom far from justifiable. He never truly gets to that point, but his bursts of fury at being backed into a corner – either by his wife’s goading or pressure from the District Attorney’s investigations – obscure the veneer of composure. Jessica Chastain is also fantastic, and though not playing a generic stay-at-home wife as such, she’s been written as the opposite: not weaker than, but stronger and more ruthless than Isaac’s Morales. Her character – Anna – would have been better played as a level match to Abel, a change that could’ve afforded her a much stronger arc. Chandor’s writing didn’t bring a whole lot to Albert Brooks’ role either, so by holding the spotlight entirely on Isaac, the consequences are restrictively pinned to one character. This focus is perfect in terms of one family business in the city, but within that focus, each member needed have been fully realised for it to be balanced.
Its successes should have been obvious, really, as J.C. Chandor has proven to be one of the most exciting and diverse directors of the last half-decade. First, with his in-depth, look at a stock market crash with Margin Call, followed by a near-wordless masterpiece of cinema in All Is Lost, and now this: a subversive, quiet thriller set in the iciness of New York. A Most Violent Year navigates the complexity of politics and capitalism without dumbing itself down, and much like true acts of violence, it’s startling and unpredictable, but at the same time, it’s a calmly unique approach to telling an isolated story that had city-wide consequences.