A Most Violent Year is a period thriller set in 1981, but the film is really a throwback to films of the decade before. Its a riveting character piece, a study of someone trying to stay clean in an increasingly dirty city, slowly losing control of his surroundings and repeatedly finding his moral code and convictions being tested. Beautifully photographed, with a sharp, slow-burning script, a moody score and amazing cast, its an excellent film that just works brilliantly.
A Most Violent Year is the story of the Abel (Oscar Isaac) and Anna (Jessica Chastain) as they struggle to maintain their home oil business during the winter of 1981 in New York City. Their rise over the previous decade has earned them the attention of both shady competitors and a justice dept keen to clean up the industry. Hijackings begin to start happening, injuring his staff, and when Abel turns to the NYPD for help he finds them more interested in investigating his business than protecting it. Abel has set a time-sensitive business contract in motion which threatens to cost him everything he has and leave him with nothing if it doesn’t go through, and the increasingly violent hijacking attacks and investigations by the NYPD gives the bank he relies on cold feet. Abel takes pride in his personal ethos of staying clean and not resorting to violence, but threatened as he is on all sides and with time running out, what else can he do?
The title A Most Violent Year can be rather misleading. as this isn’t a particularly violent film. It is graphic at times, and quite brutal, but really it isn’t a gangster movie. It’s more a character piece, an examination of a man whose morals and way of life is tested to the limit as he tries to protect his family and save his business from ruin. Isaac is simply brilliant here, obviously a major talent to watch; externally calm and charming but as the pressure on him rises you can sense that internally he is threatening to explode. Chastain however simply burns the screen, stealing every scene she is in. Whenever I see her in a film she just blows me away, and in a dark character piece like this, working off the impressive Isaac in so many scenes, its just phenomenal work. She’s just an incredible actress and it will be fascinating to see her career progress if given decent material.
Credit is no doubt due to director JC Chandor, whose previous film, All is Lost, which I saw earlier this year also impressed me. Both films have the irresistible pull of powerful central performances and a slow burn that raises the tension as the films progress. Both films hark back to that Golden Era of American Cinema, the 1970s. These aren’t fast-paced films that use action and pyrotechnics to disguise lazy writing and plot-holes. This is a film with a beginning, a middle and an end. There won’t be a sequel or a prequel. We’ll never see these characters again. But they won’t be forgotten. Its powerful stuff and definitely worth at least a rental if you are a fan of 1970s-style movies. It certainly deserves a wider audience than it likely has found so far- like All Is Lost, I suspect A Most Violent Year will gain an increasingly appreciative audience in years to come. The best films always do.