A Most Violent Year (2014)
Directed by J.C. Chandor
“A Most Violent Year” builds its tension consistently, like a boiling pot of water. But right before the pot boils over, writer/director J.C. Chandor has the decency to turn off the stove. An unpredictable, thrilling gangster movie this is not. But a masterpiece in period drama? I’ll give it that.
Like his Biblical namesake, Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) works hard for what he achieves. In 1981, New York City reached its peak of violence, with gang tensions at an all-time high. Abel feels the pressure to secure the safety of his fuel business and his family, both of which he runs with help from his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain). Abel’s truck drivers are being shot at, and his sales crew is being bullied. He can only assume one of his half-dozen competitors are hiring these thugs to drive him out of business. It’s working. Abel needs a couple of million dollars to secure a new facility that will see his company grow like mad. But he feels pressure from all sides to reach success by immoral means. The authorities (led by David Oyelowo), however, are watching his every move and making sure he’s keeping it clean. With his priorities set on doing what’s right for his family, how will Abel make it another year?
A modern-day Scarface, Abel is the quintessential gangster type. But he’d make it very clear that he is not a gangster. He’s an honest businessman, trying with all his might to avoid those unbecoming allegations. Either way, Oscar Isaac plays him with a deep passion. Method acting at its finest. His fiery exchanges with Jessica Chastain show not one, but two acting greats at the top of their game. Chastain got a Golden Globe nomination for her role, as a strong businesswoman who loves her daughters (who we don’t see much…but neither does Abel) as much as her business (which the couple purchased from her father). An Oscar nomination would not have been undeserved. Filming for “A Most Violent Year” preceded that of “Selma,” but David Oyelowo possesses a swagger and a confidence in his small role that surely prepared him to play Martin Luther King, Jr. And Albert Brooks, by now a staple of the gangster movie, shows us why his presence in these films is so craved.
J.C. Chandor’s first writing/directing effort was 2011’s “Margin Call.” But in four years, and with only three films, he has proven himself as both a director and a writer to watch very closely. Despite its length, Chandor’s script is smart, original, and well-constructed. “A Most Violent Year” has a unique, gritty, Chandorian™ feel to it, setting it apart from the legions of gangster films already in existence. He writes like someone who has been in Hollywood for decades, when in reality, Chandor spent 15 years after college directing commercials. If anyone deserves the American dream movie to be made about his life, it’s not Abel Morales – it’s him. But “A Most Violent Year” never reaches an ultimate conclusion. Instead of building to a crescendo, the script keeps a consistent pace throughout it two hours. There’s beauty in that. Abel’s story isn’t told in full, but an important part of his life, both personally and professionally, is detailed. On the other hand, I had hoped the ending would have been more dramatic and climactic.
Alex Ebert, the weird-haired 36-year-old lead singer of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, won a Golden Globe for composing the score to Chandor’s “All is Lost.” Composing “A Most Violent Year,” Ebert used the soft hum of synthesizers to keep the film’s period atmosphere intact. He succeeded in doing just that. In fact, few movies have given me the odd feeling of being teleported to the ‘80s like “A Most Violent Year.” It’s an atmospheric masterpiece. Sundance-winning cinematographer Bradford Young followed Oyelowo to “Selma,” but I prefer the intimate over-the-shoulder shots he used here. It’s full of suspense and beauty.
“A Most Violent Year” is a brilliant period drama that reminds us of the classic gangster films of the past, with two brilliant stars leading the way. J.C. Chandor has done it again.