A Most Violent Year

A Most Violent Year ★★★★★

When I heard that A Most Violent Year was so incredible that it earned comparisons to The Godfather, I truly thought that sentiment had to be overblown. I mean, it's the fucking GODFATHER. But about a third of the way through, the comparison already felt justified on an intellectual level. By the end, I was squealing with the same delight my first watch of The Godfather, Part II caused. It's an instant classic in the sense that it's original, fresh and masterful, but it also feels like it belongs in the same echelon as verified classics that have had the benefit of decades of analysis and reflection. Those are big words for such a small-looking film, but seriously, it's a masterpiece.

The year is 1981, the place is New York City. It's a very specific setting, one that is beautifully brought to life by a combination of cold and metallic surroundings, mostly understated period dress, and a warm yellow/orange glow. The cinematography by rising star Bradford Young is integral to understanding what's important about each character in every scene. Abel Gonzalez, played by a grizzled and distinguished looking Oscar Isaac, is a heating oil businessman who's worked his way up from the bottom. His wife Anna, played by a fiery and dangerous Jessica Chastain, came from a seedier background and is impossible to control. They have a marriage and business relationship that is essentially a power struggle between two people with completely different philosophies for how to achieve success. In an interview, Chastain said she saw her character as Dick Cheney. Do with that information what you will.

Abel's business is under attack from unknown forces. He assumes it's a competitor who is stealing his oil off trucks in transit. Meanwhile, he's being investigated by the feds and they dig up enough dirt to bring serious charges against him. Anna handles the books and he depends on her to keep them from getting into serious trouble, but his trust in her could be misplaced. His main goal is to close a deal for a property that will give his business a huge advantage over his competitors, but due to his legal troubles, it could fall apart. He's already put so much money down that if he fails to secure the loan, his business will go under. Throughout the film, he is constantly pulled toward the criminal options available to him but he does everything he can to resist them. He has a righteous sense of responsibility to keep things legal. As things continue to go wrong and the stakes get higher, he is forced to react in ways that push him to abandon his ideals in order to protect what he's built. He's a kind and generous man, even taking the time to directly mentor his underlings, but his priorities become crystal clear by the final scene. Until then, his character remains an intriguing mix of kind self-made millionaire, talented salesman, and spineless leader, which is a testament to Oscar Isaac's brilliant and complex performance.

What a film! It's the constant character development that gets me the most, continuing right up until the very last line of dialogue. It's also the way backstory is carefully dropped in at the best possible moments. And what about the controlled and perfectly calibrated performances? Everything about it thrilled me. I was on the edge of my seat, even in the quietest and most conventional moments. It starts out slowly but deliberately, letting details about the current circumstances truly feel like just a place to drop us into a situation that's been building up for years. I loved how I was able to work things out for myself, but I was also completely surprised at numerous points throughout. It's the most intelligent and well-crafted film I saw all year. I can't recommend it highly enough.