Release date: 23 January 2015
Running time: 125 min
Director: J.C. Chandor
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola, Albert Brooks
New York in the Seventies and early Eighties was a thoroughly violent Neighbourhood, and the backdrop to many of America’s much-loved crime classics. The likes of Dog Day Afternoon, Taxi Driver and Mean Streets forged the careers of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, and it is to films of this ilk that A Most Violent Year owes its biggest debts. An accomplished throwback to one of American cinema’s most revered periods, it recalls its best and most memorable traits whilst breathing originality into a well-trodden formula.
Immigrant Abel Morales (Isaac) is a successful oil salesman on the verge of a huge deal, which will put him one step ahead of his competitors. However no sooner has he signed the contract than everything goes awry; his trucks are being hijacked, the Feds are on his case and the bank are getting cold feet. He is surrounded by crime from all sides; even his wife Anna (Chastain) is the daughter of a famous Brooklyn gangster. Abel is determined to achieve the American Dream without resorting to criminal activity, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult with such high stakes.
A Most Violent Year is director and screenwriter J.C Chandor’s third film and shows yet again that he may be one of the most versatile young directors currently working. Last year’s Robert Redford starring All is Lost is superb – a largely dialogue-free tale of survival at sea – and was a huge change in tone from his very wordy debut Margin Call. What Chandor showcases this time round is his cine-literacy and a great understanding of how to manipulate genre. This has shades of Scorsese, Lumet and Coppola, but perhaps most importantly the Coens at their cleverest.
Oscar Isaac is increasingly proving himself to be an actor of great intelligence and breadth, and appears almost unrecognisable as a successful and controlling businessman after his superbly haphazard performance in (ironically) the Coens’ Inside Llewyn Davis. Channeling the dark charisma of the likes of Pacino, De Niro and Liotta at their best is no mean feat, even more so for an actor that prior to 2011’s Drive was barely on the radar. Chastain is also mesmerising as his equally business-savvy wife, a character who recalls Lady Macbeth as she slyly controls situations to her advantage and threatens his potential enemies.
The great writing and performances are also matched by some incredibly sumptuous cinematography. The snow-lined outskirts of New York are perfectly complimented by the mustard-tinged colour palette. The seventies feel is heightened with a grainy, filmic quality to the photography. Brimming with tension and effortlessly sexy, the languid pace may not capture everyone’s attention, but one thing is for sure: J.C. Chandor has certainly caught ours.