The reason there’s something innately interesting about films that focus on the nature of violence is that violence is maybe the driving force of cinema. Whether slapstick, gritty, gory or sub-textual, violence embodies the conceit of conflict and a story requires conflict. A Most Violent Year does not have much physical bloodshed, but it has conflict that tears characters to pieces. In a way, the lack of claret makes the destruction present all the more difficult to watch.
In 1981, following a year in which the people of New York City suffered through their worst ever crime wave, Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) and his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) attempt to run their heating oil company legitimately, despite having close ties with known criminal elements. Abel is particularly adamant that the business he has nurtured will be kept clean but in the face of a political investigation from the District Attorney and a string of burglaries from local competition during the month that Abel is concluding a high-stakes property purchase, his morality and ambition are thrust against each other in an effort to keep the company afloat.
It’s difficult to know where to begin with A Most Violent Year because like his previous two features, J.C. Chandor has delivered something of an indelible feature. It’s the sort of movie that is so loosely plotted that almost any scene could be removed from the film and the remaining events would function perfectly, but you would never want any scenes removed because they all push prescient and important ideas. Following the extremely talky Margin Call and the near wordless All is Lost, Chandor writes A Most Violent Year straddling the line between hammering points home and leaving intent up to audience interpretation. What is on the page consists of engaging, if sometimes despicable characters pushed to points of extreme and believable stress and some incredible speeches from Morales who is so infectiously quotable it’s not hard to imagine him building a company up from nothing. Don’t be surprised if going forward you start hearing salespeople advising trainees that “You will never do anything as hard as staring someone straight in the eye and telling the truth.”
If you want the deck stacked against your movie being interesting, making it a period piece will usually do wonders but Chandor handles his 80’s set morality play with finesse and vision, whether it’s with a sepia hue or a soundtrack that feels extremely reminiscent of Phillip Glass’ Koyaanisqatsi score. The camera is always framed meticulously and the few occasions in which the pace picks up, the way the camera handles movement and focus is handled beautifully and unlike any other film made today. There’s little pandering to nostalgia or reminiscence because the aesthetics feed into the characters and into the plotting. At the same time the style and tone of A Most Violent Year line up nicely with Chandor’s previous work with Abel’s quest not to become a gangster taking center stage proving as overwhelming as the financial collapse in Margin Call or merely surviving at sea in All is Lost. Insurmountable odds might be the theme that Chandor keeps coming back to but he has proven so efficient at handling this theme that it’s difficult to see him as anything other than a modern auteur.
To not mention the performances on display would be doing the leads a disservice but, frankly, when your movie is headlined by Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain with the likes of Albert Brooks and David Oyelowo supporting, there’s no excuse for lacklustre performances. Needless to say the entire cast sink their teeth into their roles with no stragglers or poor performances to be found anywhere.
Although headliners Isaac and Chastain do their best to steal yet another show, the victory here is another for writer-director J.C. Chandor who provides a slow and thought provoking examination of how one character approaches a very nihilistic world.
The story on display might be simple and small enough in scope to summarise as Scarface Macbeth, but the weight with which director J.C. Chandor grounds events leaves A Most Violent Year as one of the most important movies to come out in quite a while.
A Most Violent Year is out now in cinemas across the UK