Esteban Gonzalez’s review published on Letterboxd:
“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.”
Over the past three years director J.C. Chandor has delivered three solid films which in my opinion have been overlooked by mainstream audiences. In Margin Call I was surprised with how well Chandor had written the screenplay for his financial thriller with very fast paced dialogues. Then in his next project (All is Lost), Chandor directed a film with hardly any dialogue whatsoever and managed to keep me engaged with Robert Redford’s quiet performance as he struggled to survive at sea. And now in Chandor’s recent film, A Most Violent Year, he also delivers a unique crime drama which resembles other classic films like Chinatown and The Godfather trilogy. Chandor has now crafted three great films that are all very different from each other. Despite admiring Chandor for his great screenplays, my favorite film of his is All is Lost which didn’t really require any dialogue, so he doesn’t necessarily rely on that strength of his. A Most Violent Year stands out thanks to some fantastic performances from a talented cast, some beautiful grayish camera work from Bradford Young (Selma and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints), a great production design which recreates New York City in the early 80’s in a very realistic way, and of course a strong and gritty screenplay written by Chandor. This is a very slow paced film which delivers on the dynamics between each character more than on traditional action scenes.
What stands out the most in A Most Violent Year is the atmosphere that Chandor is able to recreate. Sometimes it feels like not much is going on, but the way the characters interact with one another keeps us engaged and interested. The film focuses on Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) an immigrant and uprising owner of a private oil company who is trying to close a deal on an important property which would boost his business. It seems that his competitors aren’t very happy with his rise. The world of private oil companies is dominated by gangsters, but Abel wants to accomplish the American dream legally. Unfortunately his trucks are being hijacked and he’s losing thousands of dollars in the process. He is desperately trying to figure out which of his competitors is behind these actions, but Lawrence (David Oyelowo), the officer in charge, doesn’t seem to have a clue. He is more interested in opening a file against Abel’s company on federal charges for tax evasion. Abel tries his best to remain an honest man, but his wife Anna (Jessica Chasten), whose father is a mobster, will do what it takes to protect her family if Abel doesn’t take care of things. All these things threaten Abel’s determination to remain legit and find a way to stay afloat, but he is determined to do so. Albert Brooks plays his lawyer, Andrew Walsh.
The performance from Oscar Isaacs stood out for me. He reminded me of Al Pacino’s performance as Michael Corleone with is calmed and determined demeanor. Things go very wrong for him, but Abel tries to remain calm and confident trying to gain back control of things. Jessica Chastain is fantastic as his wife. There is a scene where she finds her daughter playing with a gun and her reaction was priceless. The strongest moments of the film are when these two characters interact with each other. She also has a great scene with David Oyelowo where she threatens him to leave her family alone. She may be married to an honest man, but her father’s blood runs through her veins. Albert Brooks was fascinating as well despite not being on screen very much. I enjoyed his scenes and his presence is sort of the balancing point for Abel who sometimes wants to do things too legit. The grey tone of the film builds the atmosphere of the story and maintains us engaged despite the slow pacing. There is a fantastic chase scene that takes place two thirds into the film that worked really well and moved the story along, but it was the small interactions between Abel and his wife, between him and other business associates that really make this film stand out. It manages to remain an engaging and gripping thriller without having much action going on thanks to the performances and the atmosphere of the film. A Most Violent Year is a stylish thriller that hits the mark once again for Chandor, and he shouldn’t be overlooked from now on.