Follow Us on Twitter

A Most Violent Year - Review

A Most Violent Year

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 5 out of 5

SLOW-BURNING crime drama A Most Violent Year is a take notice film for two very big reasons. It marks a tour-de-force acting performance from man-of-the-moment Oscar Isaac and another mightily impressive screenwriting and directing credit from JC Chandor.

The latter has already been responsible for the excellent financial drama Margin Call and survival movie All Is Lost but his latest marks arguably his most ambitious undertaking yet.

A complex, richly layered examination of one man’s attempts to maintain his personal and business integrity amid one of the most violent and corrupt periods in New York’s history, this entertains on an intellectual level that places it on a par with the classic ’70s films of [Francis Ford] Coppola and [Sidney] Lumet as well as on an emotional level.

Isaac, meanwhile, delivers a performance that has already drawn comparisons in the US with Godfather-era Al Pacino and it is worthy of those. How the actor missed out on an Oscar nomination this year is another of this season’s awards mysteries. Coupled with his performance in Ex_Machina and last year’s Inside Llewyn Davis, Isaac now deserves to be recognised among the greatest actors of his generation.

The events of the film unfold in 1981 and focus on immigrant businessman Abel Morales (Isaac) and his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain) as they try to expand their business with a make or break deal involving oil.

However, no sooner have they placed themselves on a deadline to raise the required funds or lose everything, they find themselves caught up amid the rampant violence, decay and corruption of the day and facing a criminal investigation as well as the sustained threat of violence from the Mobsters surrounding them.

One of the most amazing things about Chandor’s film is the way he makes the complicated seem simple. Some of the machinations surrounding his business deals sound complex, while the deal itself could be described as boring. But Chandor makes them relatable and easy enough to follow for those willing to pay attention.

And such is the emotional grip the film maintains, you genuinely do care for the central character, especially as the odds become increasingly stacked against him.

Morales, for his part, maintains an impressive air of dignity throughout, only rarely becoming flustered enough to explode in the way that a young Pacino once did. But even then, there’s a class and demeanour about him that is resolutely Isaac’s. It is a performance made all the more striking for the way it differs from his turns in the films we earlier mentioned.

Chandor, too, deserves credit for allowing Isaac the time in which to weave such a rich tapestry. But then, as proven with Redford in All Is Lost and his starry ensemble in Margin Call, he’s very much an actor’s director.

There’s striking support, too, from the likes of Chastain, excellent as the Mobster-linked wife, David Oyelowo, as the no-nonsense but kind of sympathetic cop on his trail, Albert Brooks, as his dubious lawyer, and Elyes Gabel, as one of Morales’ less fortunate employees (whose own story carries a tragic undertow).

While certainly slow paced by the standards of some crime dramas, Chandor nevertheless invests proceedings with an underlying tension that means the threat of violence is never far away. For make no mistake, the stakes are high and you can sense the desperation, no matter how calm Morales’ demeanour.

In doing so, Chandor also asks questions of his audience concerning integrity, corruption and whether it is better to fight fire with fire or to hold onto one’s principals when all around are willing to compromise theirs.

A Most Violent Year is therefore something of a masterclass. A film that aspires to the greatness of a bygone era of filmmaking that reaches it with some style.

Certificate: 15
Running time: 125mins
UK Release Date: January 23, 2015