Review: “A Most Violent Year” (****½)

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Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac star in “A Most Violent Year.”
From the opening credits, “A Most Violent Year” is hypnotic. A tracking shot shows our lead, Abel (Oscar Isaac), jogging through a chilly New York. It’s 1981. Passing graffiti-covered buildings, piles of dirty snow and junk yards, we’re introduced to a New York rarely seen in film. The gorgeous, crisp sepia-toned colors and cool, clean tracking shots call to mind some of David Fincher’s more recent films. Perhaps writer director JC Chandor took a page from Fincher’s how-to-make-anything-and-everything-look-amazing playbook. It’s beautiful. The sun starts to rise as the city wakes up. After Abel finishes his morning run, we see his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), applying her make-up and listening to the local news on the radio as she stares into the mirror and exhales cigarette smoke. Soon after, the couple meets up in a damp, snowy parking lot as Abel grabs two brief cases from the trunk of his car and tells Anna that she “looks very nice.” At the same time, a young man driving a large truck pays his way through a toll booth on a bustling highway. The man is immediately blocked in by two cars, pulled out of his truck and beaten up by two strangers with hand guns. The words “A Most Violent Year” appear on the screen accompanied by the sound of a passing train.

Abel is an immigrant from Latin America whose pursuit of the American Dream drives him to be the best he can be. He owns a heating and oil company with his wife and, at a time where lying, cheating and stealing is the norm, he attempts to maintain an honest and truthful work ethic. Abel wants to expand his business but he is facing a potential lawsuit as well as increasing violence in the streets. His drivers are returning to work with black eyes and bloody noses.

His unwavering view of what it means to be a good man and make an honest living is admirable. For a protagonist in a “crime” film, I found this refreshing. Abel is constantly faced with obstacles and endlessly tempted to take the easy way out, but his character won’t let him. He refuses to believe that he has to stoop down to the level of these criminals to succeed. His firm stance is what makes his relationship with Anna so fascinatingly complex. Jessica Chastain is perfect in the role of Anna, a gangster’s daughter who is a little less concerned with doing the right thing and a little more willing to do the dirty work. She and Abel are a team, however dysfunctional they may seem as a couple. Their kids take priority and when they are threatened by a home intruder, Anna ferociously lets Abel know that it might be time to stop taking the high road.

Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain as Abel and Anna Morales.

Chastain and Isaac (who have been long-time friends and studied together at Juilliard) have wonderful chemistry. I wouldn’t call their characters opposites, but they come close. They support each other despite their wildly different upbringings. They want the same thing: success. Both actors were shut out of the Oscars, but for my money, they’re both doing their best work here.

Throughout, we’re told that the city’s crime rates are increasing and deaths and rapes are becoming more and more frequent. The film itself actually has very little violence, though. That’s not to say it isn’t riddled with suspense, however. Chandor sets up this world—a world that feels so real, so layered and so familiar—that the simple idea of violence is enough to fear. Much like the people living in New York in 1981, the audience is on edge—waiting for something (bad) to happen. JC Chandor uses sharp dialogue and even sharper silences to flesh out these fine-tuned characters. There’s one speech given by Isaac’s character to one of his budding employees that is absolutely mesmerizing.

One could argue that little happens in the film, while another could say the exact opposite. That’s what makes it all so fantastic. Immensely entertaining, profoundly thought-provoking and a talent showcase across the board, “A Most Violent Year” is one of the best—and most unique—American crime dramas of the past decade.
4.5 out of 5 stars.
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