“This is the f**kin’ American dream. This is my f**kin’ dream, y’all!” Oscar Isaac’s character, Abel Morales, in A Most Violent Year yells while jumping on his bed. Actually, he doesn’t. Not even a little, not even at all. As amusing as it’d be to watch Isaac do his best Franco in Spring Breakers, it’d be a shame if filmmaker J.C. Chandor had done anything other than what he does with taut, tense, and often funny, third feature film, considering just how damn good it is.
To call A Most Violent Year the antithesis to your typical gangster flick would be right on the money, as the calm, 1981-set, flick follows an ambitious immigrant who tries to maintain the success of his oil business without resorting to the same kind of mob violence his competitors use. All the while, his worried, but capable, wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) is keeping their accounts under control, especially in light of their current battle against the assistant district attorney (David Oyelowo) bringing charges against them.
It’s not exactly an unfamiliar narrative, but what Chandor brings to the table is a protagonist that is genuinely unwilling to settle for mob tactics and someone interested in achieving “the American Dream” without taking shortcuts; a stark contrast to practically every other flick in recent years. Isaac, pulling out his best Pacino impression (and a fine one at that), dives right into this character. He’s a man who fights his competitors with words, can barely handle putting a hurt deer out of its misery, and flips out when his wife has the audacity to bring a weapon into their home.
His wife, however, who Chastain handles with beautiful restrain at times and all the glory of a mob wife in other moments, is a different beast altogether. “This was very disrespectful,” she says to Oyelowo’s DA, a bitterness in her voice as she walks away when a party she’s hosting is interrupted. The fabulous costuming and the acrylic nails she sports make her all the more vicious in a subtler manner; a seemingly high-class woman who is entirely self-sufficient and refuses to let go of the world she’s entered, regardless of what her husband might think of her. There’s plenty of laughs to be had because of her sharp comments at times, but that’s a film that’s laced with humorous dialogue all throughout its coy script. So coy, sadly, that its humor might be lost on many who watch it, leaving them rather bored with the film’s calculated pacing.
So much of A Most Violent Year‘s beauty lies in its quiet ways, Chandor’s minimalist heart beating to the simple tunes that Alex Ebert provides; occasionally drawing from Western score motifs and presenting each piece in a way that’s far less intrusive than All is Lost. Many of the confrontations in the film unfold through dialogue rather than gun fights, only hitting a few beats of “real action” (including an impressively mounted chase sequence) during its two-hour length, each one tenser than the last. Much of the reason these scenes work so well is because of the way Chandor works with cinematographer Bradford Young (whom I’ve already confessed my adoration for multiple times).
Young makes it a point to place Isaac’s silhouette against the city as often as possible – while driving, standing atop an oil truck, and facing the city skyline – more often than not in an attempt of giving this “little fish in a big world” style narrative a little more heft. “These are dangerous times and we have to adapt,” one character states, but much like his character, J.C. Chandor refuses to adapt to become more like his peers in the gangster genre. While his first two films may have left a sour taste in my mouth, A Most Violent Year has won me over with its measured, slow-burning approach to something whose title insists otherwise.
Directed by J.C. Chandor; written by J.C. Chandor; starring Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Albert Brooks, Alessandro Nivola, Elyes Gabel, and Catalina Sandino Moreno; 125 minutes.
A Most Violent Year opens on December 31st in NY/LA and expands nationally in January. In Miami, the film opens at O Cinema Miami Beach on January 30th (where you can go watch it and also tell my boyfriend how beautiful he is)