April issue 2015
Movie Review: A Most Violent Year
With only three films under his belt, J.C. Chandor has established himself as a bright voice in independent cinema. What’s striking about his films is that they don’t necessarily adhere to the conventions of the genre they belong to. His debutMargin Call, a flawed film about the 2008 Wall Street crash, thankfully avoided the shiny and resplendent side of high finance, coolly observing the characters and the mess they had created. All is Lost, an alternative take on the disaster movie, was audacious in its one man, few dialogues concept.
Chandor’s latest film, A Most Violent Year, continues the tradition. This is a crime drama where the characters aren’t necessarily criminals. It’s 1981 and New York City is crime central, the year being considered the most violent in the city’s history. There were more reported robberies and murders in those 12 months than in any other year, so it’s understandable that even an upstanding and hard-working citizen like Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) gets embroiled in shady affairs.
Morales runs an oil company, which has of late been the victim of several truck hijackings. One such truck contains about US$ 6,000 worth of furnace oil, and early on in the film, one truck driver (Elyes Gabel) gets beaten up by unknown hijackers. Morales cannot fathom who is behind all these crimes and his Lady Macbeth-like wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), orders him to fight violence with violence. But Abel is a law-abiding citizen, or so he thinks. District Attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo) is investigating Morales, whose company has come under suspicion for tax evasion. When Abel asks Anna whether he should be worried, she gives him no clear answers.
Anna resembles Lady Macbeth, for sure, but interestingly A Most Violent Year feels like a Shakespeare play in general too. All characters appear to be innocent souls, but may prove to be snakes in the grass. This is true of Abel, Anna and, perhaps, even Lawrence. With a premise like this, taking 1981 and its violent history as a backdrop, Chandor shows us that even the most basic business, especially one that is still establishing itself, would not be able to proceed untouched by some degree of criminal behaviour, be it of an active or passive kind.
Many filmmakers misunderstand the concept of period films. They feel they have to show off the retro feel and be flashy. But A Most Violent Year looks and feels authentic, quite like what an early ’80s film might have looked, if it had all the digital equipment at its disposal. Chandor creates the apt mood for a quiet crime drama like this and his trump card is cinematographer Bradford Young, who excels here after doing some stunning work on Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Selma.
There’s a lot to love in this film. Isaac and Chastain complement each other beautifully. There’s a thrilling chase sequence. And one scene, where Anna admonishes DA Lawrence for intruding on a birthday party, is one for the ages.
This review was originally published in Newsline’s April 2015 issue under the headline, “Snakes in the Grass.”
Schayan Riaz is a film critic based in Germany