Director: J. C Chandor
Cast: Oscar Isaacs, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Albert Brooks, Elyes Gabel, Alessandro Nivola
Plot: Abel (Isaacs) is on the verge of closing an important business deal, but a severe crime rate means that his desire to remain legitimate might be tested.
A Most Violent Year takes one of the core topics in the Godfather trilogy – is it possible to pull yourself out of a life of crime when you are surrounded by it? – and dedicates its entire movie to dissecting and attempting to answer that question. It is an interesting debate and A Most Violent Year has fun playing around with the question. Abel Morales is an honest businessman, selling heating oil to households across New York, competing with several other independent businesses. He gambles his families’ savings on getting himself a deposit for a new plot of land that could make him the leading company in that market. He has 30 days to get a loan, which shouldn’t be a problem, considering the promise of a boom in business, once he has the land. The catch: it is 1981 and New York has hit a peak in rising crime rates. His oil trucks are being stolen, his staff assaulted and all of his competitors have ties with the local mobsters, realising that embracing crime makes life so much easier. Abel is determined to be the only businessman in the heating oil industry to stay on the straight and narrow, but with his lawyers nervous about the black hole in his finances, his wife eager to run to her mobster father at the drop of the hat and his workers scared for their lives, everywhere he turns seems to demand that crime really does pay. The cleverest piece of story-telling on show here is the fact that the police are convinced that he is already a villain, investigating his finances continuously, sure that no one this successful did it without succumbing to crime. When everyone already thinks you are a criminal, surely it can’t hurt to just become one? A Most Violent Year pushes the character of Abel Morales into a corner and the movie explores just how far you can bend a man’s beliefs, until they are forced to break.
If the reason you are watching this movie isn’t to explore that social debate, you are probably attracted to A Most Violent Year because of the two leads. They do not disappoint. Oscar Isaacs delivers one of his finest performances yet, asked to hold long scenes with little more than his ability to nail a monologue. Channelling Al Pacino from the peak of his career and dressed as sharp as the dialogue, Isaacs hits every note you would expect an actor to in OSCAR season. While he missed out on a nomination (probably the right call – most of the other nominees were outstanding in their respective roles), you cannot fault him here. He remains pristine throughout, the struggles behind closed doors shown through miniscule twitches around the eyes and mouth. Surprisingly, the more interesting character, and perhaps stealing the better performance, is Chastain. It would be easy to write up a wife figure and dismiss it easily, but Chastain is far too complex an actress to let that happen. She becomes one of the bigger influences in the movie, when it comes to the dark side whispering in Abel’s ear. When a man comes to the family home with a gun to send a message, she accuses her husband of being less of a man for not turning to crime to protect their family. She jumps from loving and supportive wife, to the most bitter of Abel’s enemies and it is to Chastain’s credit, that she manages to make the shift in character so natural and believable. The other performance worth noting is Elyes Gabel, a British actor who probably got this role from a bit part in Game of Thrones, who plays one of the first truck drivers to get beaten up by street thugs, which sets him on a downward spiral, as he is trapped in his own fear of a crime-ridden New York and a desire to simply stay alive. Perhaps that subplot ends a little too dramatically, screaming the need for a hard-hitting finish, but the rest of that story is a great source of drama and entertainment.
Then why didn’t I like A Most Violent Year? I loved the topic it tackled and every actor knocked the ball out of the park. The three mentioned above were the ones to watch, but everyone else deserves their own round of applause. Sadly, this movie dresses up like too many better films. It discusses crime and gangsters, yet never really compares to the movies it references: Godfather, Scarface, Serpico. It lacks a kick to proceedings, relying too much on its actors to hold a scene. Yes, I was captivated by Oscar Isaacs’ performance, but the movie clocks in at 125 minutes, which is just too long to spend watching an actor look stressed. I wasn’t asking for a dramatic Godfather finish or the bad guys to end up being offed, but the ending needed to justify the arduous wait. It drifts to a close and while I appreciated the fact that we are left questioning whether Abel managed to get to the other end of the movie with his desire to keep his affairs legal, it just didn’t captivate or entertain me in the way I wanted to be.
Final Verdict: A Most Violent Year boasts some terrific performances, yet it relies on them too much, lacking a third act punch to tie the story together.