In New York City 1981, an ambitious immigrant fights to protect his business and family during the most dangerous year in the city’s history.
‘A Most Violent Year’ is a slow burning mood piece about an immigrant trying to protect his business against a backdrop of crime and violence in New York in 1981. Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is an ambitious businessman who is trying to expand his business when he is threatened by a series of robberies which he suspects are from his competitors. In addition to this, the local DA (David Oyewolo) is out to make a name for himself and brings charges down on Morales for a series of crimes such as fraud and tax evasion. As if this isn’t enough, Morales is trying to close an important deal and the circumstances occurring around him put his ability to do so at great risk.
The film is the third feature from talented director J. C. Chandor after the excellent ‘Margin Call’ and ‘All is Lost’, and the knowledge of business he showed in ‘Margin Call’ comes to the fore here. The film is very dialogue heavy, focused on details and requiring full concentration, but it’s the kind of film that is really rewarding if you let it creep under your skin and let yourself be immersed in the terrific script. Starring Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain as the husband and wife behind the business, Chandor’s character building is superb against a backdrop of crime and intrigue. The violence in the film isn’t frequent but we can feel its presence lurking around every corner thanks to the atmosphere created by Chandor’s direction, the moody performances and Alex Ebert’s understated score.
The film has been compared to ‘The Godfather’ in some respects, and there are some similarities. Both films deal in a character’s rise to power, albeit Morales family business is more legitimate than the Corleone’s criminal enterprise, and Oscar Isaac’s portrayal owes a lot to Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone. Not only does Isaac resemble Pacino from that era, but he carries himself like him, both in his quiet understated actions and his measured dialogue. Morales is ruthless but he doesn’t let it show outwardly, keeping his counsel primarily to himself and always thinking of the steps he needs to take to achieve his goals. Oscar Isaac is fast becoming one of our most accomplished actors, and his performance here is pitch perfect, conveying everything with his face and his body language.
An interesting counterpoint to Morales story is Julian (Elyes Gabel), one of Abel’s drivers who comes from the same place as Abel with the same ambitions. Gabel’s performance provides the emotional core in the story and his journey throughout the course of the film is heartbreaking. Both men may come from the same place, but they’re on a different trajectory and it’s interesting to see in Chandor’s portrayal that the idea of chasing the American dream can go both ways. In a film of many great performances, Jessica Chastain excels as Abel’s wife, ferocious and every bit as ambitious, whilst Albert Brooks and David Oyelowo are reliably strong.
‘A Most Violent Year’ is a rich, atmospheric thriller that maintains a low key tension to drive the meticulously plotted story. Featuring excellent performances from a superb cast, this is another superb film to add to J. C. Chandor’s repertoire and I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.
Directed By: J. C. Chandor
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Albert Brooks, David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola, Elyes Gabel, Peter Gerety, Glenn Fleshler and Jerry Adler