If box office numbers can be trusted, you probably missed A Most Violent Year when it was in theaters in 2014. Now is your chance to remedy that wrong. The film – one of the finest and most underseen of last year – releases for home entertainment this week. Just the third film from fascinating director J.C. Chandor, it’s a look at the merits and moral compromise of the American Dream in a gritty drama set in NYC’s crime-ridden 1980. The look is impeccable, outdone only by a spectacular cast anchored by another magnificent turn from Oscar Isaac.
While it would make just as much sense to highlight either of Chandor’s previous efforts, A Most Violent Year makes us nostalgic for the filmmaking of Sidney Lumet, so instead we decided to pair it with his last, wonderful effort, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. An older brother (the great Philip Seymour Hoffman) hiding dark, addictive behavior, talks his sad-sack younger brother (Ethan Hawke) into something unthinkable. It’s the last master turn from Lumet with help from a top to bottom wonderful cast.
J. C. Chandor knows what he wants to say. He knows the content, the concepts, and the situations, and while you may not, do not expect to be spoon fed. His 2011 debut Margin Call wasted no time getting audiences up to speed on Wall Street’s inner workings, nor did Chandor preface last year’s All Is Lost with a tutorial on yachting. Chandor believes you are wise enough to keep up, which is a daunting but wonderful change of pace.
Like the filmmaker’s previous work, A Most Violent Year drops you in the center of an episode in progress, and while you may know little of the crime in New York City in 1981, and less still about the fuel business, Chandor hopes you’ll push all that aside to take in the kind of period drama we haven’t seen since Sidney Lumet.
Oscar Isaac plays handsome, proud, honorable man Abel Morales, who bought his father-in-law’s heating oil business and is brokering a deal that will allow him to break free from that shadow and control his own fate – if he can complete the payment in 30 days.
Meanwhile, a gunman’s been prowling his property, hijackers are taking his trucks, his terrified drivers want to arm themselves illegally, and the DA promises coming indictments.
A Most Violent Year is a film about the merits versus moral compromise of the American Dream, and Chandor’s slow boil of a film keeps you on edge for a full 125 minutes because there is absolutely no guessing what is coming next.
Isaac and Jessica Chastain, playing his wife Anna, are measured perfection – an impeccable, in-control Abel balanced by a volatile Anna. They become a force, survivors who check and balance each other. Their chemistry is amazing. Co-stars David Oyelowo and Albert Brooks are also excellent.
The film is satisfyingly untidy – a fact that makes it unpredictable and genuinely life-like. No flashbacks remind you of one legacy or explain another character’s behavior because that doesn’t happen in life, either. People are as they are, situations complicate and unravel, marriages take shape and morph in to something else.
It’s also a piece of atmospheric perfection, a provocatively gritty and realistic image of NYC in 1981. As much authenticity as you’ll find in Chandor’s screenplay, his wide shots, subway graffiti, lighting and wardrobe complete the picture. It’s just another reason you feel as if you’re watching an old Sidney Lumet film, and wishing there were more filmmakers willing to make a location and point in time as grand a character as anyone in the ensemble.