A Most Violent Year- Film Review – 2015 – Film Dispenser

Film January 30, 2015 Scott Phillips
Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every Fall.

In the opening moments of A Most Violent Year, we see Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) running through the suburban streets of New York in 1981.  His breathing is rhythmic, and he never breaks stride, never falters in his relentless pace.  It’s a nice metaphor for all that is yet to come.  Abel owns a heating oil distribution company, and he is on the brink of closing a real estate transaction that will leave him poised to ascend to new heights in his industry.  He has thirty days to close the deal, and nothing is going to get in his way. His focus never wavers. His control and determination leave him in constant forward motion, pursuing his personal vision of success.

Abel’s wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), is the daughter and sister of organized crime figures. An air of danger surrounds her. The audience feels that with a single phone call she could level the mountains that Abel wants to lawfully climb. She admires her husband’s determination to run a legitimate business while smiling at his naivete. She’s a Lady Macbeth in waiting, held in check (momentarily?) by her genuine love for her husband.

Despite all of the comparisons to The Godfather, A Most Violent Year isn’t a gangster film.  Some of the familiar trappings are present:  Teamsters, federal indictments, truck hijackings.  Instead of drawing from the standard cinematic organized crime playbook, writer/director J.C. Chandor takes the audience’s knowledge of that genre, and its certainty of what is about to happen, and delivers an original narrative that consistently defies those expectations.  It’s a film of quiet surprises and character nuances that deviate from the Mafia movie formula at every turn.  And that’s a very good thing.

One of the primary reasons for comparisons to the Francis Ford Coppola classic is Chandor’s leading man. Oscar Isaacs sizzles with the same dark-eyed intensity that Al Pacino brought to the Godfather films. He possesses the same frightening calm, the same ability to look into your eyes and know everything you are thinking. But while Michael Corleone was an inexorable force who would employ any means necessary to meet his goals, Abel Morales cares about how he is perceived by others. His desire to be a legitimate business man isn’t window dressing or wishful thinking. His version of the American Dream requires calculation and shrewd decision-making, not violence.  To attain his goals through brute force would be a personal failure, and Oscar Isaac brings Abel’s internal struggle to vivid life without any showy histrionics or Method Acting affectations.

Jessica Chastain continues to prove that she can be a cinematic chameleon. From Zero Dark Thirty to The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby to this film, Chastain effortlessly inhabits a character. It’s not Jessica Chastain on screen. It’s Anna Morales. The role could have easily become shrewish or brassy.  However, the Chandor script and her performance capture the complexities of this Mafia daughter who can’t help but admire her husband’s idealism. She’s a real person with internal conflicts, and that is rarely the case with female supporting characters in modern Hollywood.

Bradford Young (Selma, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) is a 37-year-old cinematographer whose star is on the rise. His visual compositions here underscore the themes of A Most Violent Year while never jockeying to take centerstage. His use of vertical space and wide shots give the film a sense of enormity and denseness beyond the plot machinations unfolding on the screen. Note his filming of luxury mansions and the excesses of wealth as they tower over the characters and dominate the screen.

Earlier, this month when I posted my column discussing my Top 10 Films of 2014, I listed A Most Violent Year as a film I had not seen before my deadline that might make me revise that list. That has now proven to be true.  Just don’t ask me which of the other ten titles I would drop to make room for this outstanding film. I can’t take the stress.

Scott Phillips

The Movie Isle

Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.

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