Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 2 hours 5 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Language and some Violence
Directed by: J.C. Chandor
Written by: J.C. Chandor
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Alessandro Nivola, David Oyelowo & Albert Brooks
In spite of the word VIOLENT being in its title, A MOST VIOLENT YEAR is a restrained crime drama that works on subtle levels. In essence, this film feels sort of like a stage play that was expanded into a cinematic feature complete with a car chase, a single shootout, and not much actual violence. That’s not a knock against the film at all, because (for the most part) A MOST VIOLENT YEAR is a compelling story about someone trying to live the American Dream in an honest fashion and discovering that’s damn near impossible.
1981 has become known to be one of the most violent years in New York City’s history, but this is exactly where Abel Morales finds himself in the biggest step of his career as a businessman. Abel runs Standard Oil, a fairly new company, and has done his best to keep his business clean. This is not the easiest possible option as he’s married to Anna (daughter of a notoriously powerful gangster), is constantly being harassed by a District Attorney, and repeatedly finds his trucks hit by carjackers. Trying to secure an important piece of real estate that could make his business one of the most powerful in the whole city, Abel finds his moral compass tested beyond belief as he tries to do things the right way in tough times.
Viewers expecting lots of bloodshed, car chases and mafia meetings are bound to be disappointed in A MOST VIOLENT YEAR. This film is much like last year’s A MOST WANTED MAN. Besides sharing similar titles, both films are deliberately paced and focus their stories mainly on character interactions and discussions full of important dialogue. I can easily see some folks throwing any appreciation out the window for this film because it’s far more interested in being a character study than an all-out gangster flick. A great way to describe the main vibe I got from this film was that it’s almost an alternate version of THE GODFATHER in which Michael tries harder not to become a gangster and to keep his nose clean (this will not be the last comparison I make to GODFATHER either).
The atmosphere of A MOST VIOLENT YEAR is thick as a muted color palette gives the impression that director/writer J.C. Chandor was evoking 70’s crime movies. The script is so compelling that it was as if I had been thrown into Abel’s shoes and felt the increasing anxiety that his character experiences during the tough decisions. A neat parallel is also thrown out as a story arc of a company truck driver offers an interesting comparison to Abel’s storyline. Not all is perfect as there are a couple of plot points that feel out-of-place. Abel’s marriage to Anna isn’t focused on nearly enough as there was real potential to push their already strained relationship further. Also, a very unconvincing character decision took me out of the movie for five minutes. It felt like a betrayal to this person that I had stuck with up until that point, but the film mends this with a poetic conclusion.
To make up for minor faults in the script, the acting is phenomenal. Though Javier Bardem was originally considered for the role of Abel, it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Oscar Isaac as this complicated character. His resemblance to a young Al Pacino is uncanny and he has the talent to back up his lead role here as a man with a moral compass that might eventually become his destruction. Jessica Chastain is amazing as Anna. The role is unlike any she’s taken thus far and she fully disappears into her femme fatale character. Albert Brooks has a memorable part as Abel’s corrupt lawyer, while David Oyelowo is great in the role of superficial District Attorney with ulterior motives. I didn’t recognize the rest of the cast members, but they all played their parts to perfection as well (especially the gangsters shown in a handful of scenes).
A MOST VIOLENT YEAR is a deliberately paced, mature crime-drama that focuses far more on drama caused by crime than crime caused by drama. Though it has a couple of hiccups in the script (including one distinct moment that I didn’t believe for a second), this is a compelling film about the nature of corruption and false ideas of the American Dream. Go in expecting graphic violence and you’ll be disappointed, even though there’s a terrific car chase in the final third. If you go in looking for serious character study and deeper commentary, you should be more than satisfied.