Words by George Dupays
A Most Violent Year is the third feature film directed by J.C. Chandor, following on from his critically acclaimed 2013 film All is Lost starring Robert Redford. Set in 1981’s crime filled New York, the film sees Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) and his family seeking to protect and build upon their business ventures during one of the most violent years in the city’s history. From the very first truck hijacking we understand the circumstance Abel is in, trying to be a good honest man when the world around him is anything but. As the exasperated Abel says, “I spent my whole life trying not to become a gangster’.
Featuring a stellar cast including Jessica Chastain (Interstellar, The Help), Albert Brookes (Mother, Drive) and David Oyelowo (Selma), it is both Chastain and Isaac who truly shine, split between being loving parents, and “gangsters” with a burning aspiration to achieve the American Dream. They are a superb on-screen couple, with the expected quarrels, chemistry and believability you’d expect from an actual relationship (with even more realism added by a beautiful home, three daughters and a dog). Isaac delivers as an honest enterprising man facing a mountain of challenges, both physical and moral, whilst Chastain smoulders as both the stylish and supportive soul mate whilst being the daughter of a washed-up Brooklyn gangster. “It wasn’t your good luck helping you out all these years. It was me!” Keep an eye out for both of these names during the upcoming awards season!
The direction of J.C. Chandor skilfully navigates a complex plot, showcasing low-boil tension and slow-burning character drama. But the one major flaw I had was with the pacing. Very often the film left us with slow lingering conversations and exaggerated stares, and while this gave more time for character development and emotional study, some may be put off by the lack of a violent, thrilling mob escapade, as the title suggests. Also, many audience members will almost certainly find the film too dark and moody to really connect with.
My issues with the pace and tone can be forgiven however when the different compelling threads of storyline connect towards the end. No one can doubt the skill of Chandor when it comes to the feel of an ominous foreboding atmosphere or concrete jungle environment, and he combines sepia backdrops with murky skylines to replicate the 80’s feel, creating an ideal situation for tension and destruction to brew.