The new movie from director J.C. Chandor is the superbly nuanced, terrifically acted A MOST VIOLENT YEAR.
I’m a bit of a fan of J. C. Chandor and the movies he makes. His latest A MOST VIOLENT YEAR gives us not only some terrific performances but also another sharply observed, nuanced drama. From his debut, the fantastic ensemble morality tale about the financial crisis Margin Call, to the solo virtuosity of Robert Redford alone in a boat in peril on the ocean in All Is Lost, Chandor has shown himself to be an extremely accomplished writer and director of bold material.
He can also elicit wonderful performances from his actors and here, these are care of two of the most brilliant and in-demand actors today, Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain and readers of this blog will know, I’m also fans of their work too. So the prospect of them joining forces with Chandor was a tantalising notion and the result is one of the most understated and quietly powerful dramas you’ll see this year.
Isaac is Abel Morales, an immigrant who is a great example of the work-hard ethic of The American Dream, having built a successful heating oil business but on his own moral terms. Chastain is Anna, his wife, and partner, a well-to-do daughter of a mobster whose moral compass is perhaps a little shadier. Together, during a particularly hard New York winter in 1981 – apparently the most crime-ridden year in the city’s history – they try to expand their company whilst fending off the attention of Lawrence, a very driven district attorney who thinks Abel’s business has something to hide, tremendously played by David Oyelowo.
In Abel’s corner though is his lawyer, the somewhat crumpled but very clever Andrew Walsh (another excellent performance from Albert Brooks that is right at the other end of the spectrum from his frightening crime lord in Drive) and with Walsh’s help, Abel is attempting to buy a large piece of waterfront real estate in order to further grow his empire. But at the same time, he’s contending with his rival heating oil companies headed up by the likes of the moneyed Peter Forente (Alessandra Nivola in a suitably oily portrayal), who certainly don’t want someone new taking away their profits and the now regular attacks on his fleet of trucks.
“When it feels scary to jump, that is exactly when you jump, otherwise you end up staying in the same place your whole life, and that I can’t do.”
Abel, you see, is made of stern stuff and when he utters lines like these, the piece takes on an almost Shakespearean feel as we watch a man beset on all sides by the people and events around him who will either stand or fall by the end of the movie. It’s superb stuff and Isaac gives us another riveting performance as Abel, at one minute majestic and cool in his camel coat, then struggling to stay in control – particularly during the fantastic chase scene that brings to mind The French Connection.
He’s matched scene for scene by Chastain, with her equally elegant attire covering a heart as ruthless and single-minded as befits the daughter of a family whose trade is violence. Her scene with Oyelowo, where he and his officers interrupt her daughter’s birthday party, is as chilling as it is polite. When Isaac and Chastain are together, the movie shifts up a gear and the danger of blindly trusting those closest to you is put to the test in one memorable scene late on in the movie.
Behind the camera, this time Chandor collaborates with cinematographer Bradford Young, whose work on Ain’t Them Bodies Saints was reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s magic hour photography on Days of Heaven. Here he uses the snowy landscapes and grey skies of New York to give the film a steely palate that perfectly mirrors the cold-hard business of winning at all costs.
Chandor’s script is as taught and detailed as his previous work and like his first two features, I feel very much that this is the kind of film that really delivers more with each new time you watch it. The subtlety of the drama that unfolds is something that may, in time, be hailed as a masterpiece.