Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
A Most Violent Year bites with confidence and leaves the impression of a master filmmaker telling a story of building one’s future in America. Writer-director J.C. Chandor’s third directorial feature is a staunchly astute and caustically biting film about an immigrant attempting to accrue a fortune with a gas oil company in 1981 New York. After making two drastically different cinematic worlds with the talkative, socially critical Margin Call and almost wordless, contemplative All is Lost, Chandor makes his most conventional, accessible, and altogether compelling characterizations to date. By hiring the two hottest actors in Hollywood today, Chandor has the benefit of Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain embodying his strong forces on screen as the divided, composed husband to the quiet, ruthless wife, respectively. They each hold their own in a world that makes them feel inconsequential, but the endless devotion to their company and, perhaps more importantly, keeping their pride and family alive, makes the story a universally appealing, beautifully rendered aspiration toward the American Dream.
Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) runs Standard Heating Oil, a company that largely ships through trucks around New York City but has recently faced some thefts on their routes. The business is already competitive with plenty of other rivals being potential suspects, but Abel has no semblance of who it can be. It’s costing his company by the minute, though, and he can’t let it keep up. None of his men are armed or prepared for such turbulent drives, and the people taking advantage of them know just that. Abel’s weakness is that he hasn’t committed to protecting his company at all costs, and his domestic life begins to brew with dissension. His wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), keeps tallies on the company and knows where they need to make up for discrepancies. She handles the finances, but she’s not a glorified secretary; she’s a strong woman that holds a much larger grasp on the company than even Abel realizes at times. That makes for a wonderful dichotomy that grows stronger over the film, whether that be through dinners with potential investors or on the domestic front as they dispute the future and potential of the company.
The film opens in the vein of The Godfather and never really lets up tonally or thematically. Alex Ebert’s score underlies every scene hauntingly and powerfully. There’s a growing sense of unease over the course of Abel’s pursuit of happiness in an American landscape that looks down on his immigrant status and aims to benefit those already in power. The film’s most powerful scene is one that’s been discussed often, rightfully so: Abel’s presentation of his business model to future employees not only shows the way he wants his employees to think, but also the way he does his own work. He’s slyly manipulative and justifies every reprehensible action with an intelligent reason. Isaac makes him one of the most compelling protagonists of the year, and follows up his amazing work in Inside Llewyn Davis, with an equally complicated, well-drawn figure. Chastain is the more subtly powerful force; her scenes are magnetic. Chandor’s film oozes with confidence and is shot excitingly, particularly when the action scenes amp up. A Most Violent Year is confident and aware of its own footing, making for a terrific, thought-provoking feature.
Grade: ★★★★½ (out of 5)