Title: A Most Violent Year
Director: J C Chandor
Major Players: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo
Out Of Five: Four
Here comes the age old analogy. You wait for ages ….. well, you know the rest. Except for buses read DVDs. This Monday sees the arrival on DVD of two of the best films from the early part of the year, yet they ended up being also-rans when it came to the awards race. And that’s not all they have in common.
One of them is Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, which I’ve reviewed separately. The other is the third film from J C Chandor (Margin Call, All Is Lost), A Most Violent Year. It goes without saying that its subject is a world away from his other two films – the financial crash in the 2000s and a man adrift on the ocean in an open boat.
He’s shifted the action to New York in 1981, the most violent year in the city’s history. Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) and his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) have worked hard to develop the heating oil business they inherited from her father. It’s been a struggle to stay on the right side of the law, even if Abel’s instincts are to play it straight, and they’re in a fiercely competitive market, so much so his rivals are trying to put him out of business by hi-jacking his trucks and cargo. He’s faced with a choice: stay clean and go under or play dirty and survive.
As ever, Chandor gives us a strong story, tells it in his customary clean, unfussy style and populates it with credible and interesting characters. And, while it’s essentially a character driven film, there’s more than a touch of The Godfather about it, especially where Isaac is concerned. Not only does he conjure up memories of the young Al Pacino, but his measured, even tone of voice really the spirit of Michael Corleone, especially when it comes to his fundamental moral dilemma. But, unlike Corleone, he manages to walk the tightrope between legal and illegal, although there are times when he has a toe or two in each camp. And he has a sympathetic side, caring for staff who are beaten up by his rivals and reluctant to kill a hi-jacker when he gets the opportunity.
It’s his wife, Anna, who has the criminal mentality, although her motives are understandable – up to a point, at least. With her mile wide ruthless streak, she has more than a hint of Lady McB about her. But, although the film initially seems set up to work as a double act with her husband, she’s totally absent throughout the middle section. She’s very prominent in the first half and the contrast between her and Abel is sharply drawn: she’s constantly at his side when he needs her, then in the background, going over the books and totting things up on her adding machine, tapping its keys with a pencil to preserve her manicure. Her return to the action later on gives the film a lift, a combination of Chastain’s performance, our fascination with less likeable characters and the fact that the couple are stronger together than apart.
To the outside world, they’re the epitome of living the American dream, immaculately dressed – he in a tailored camel overcoat, she in a white one with a wide belt. And their appearances are in stark contrast with the surroundings in which they work – rusty, grubby and, presumably, smelly.
It’s a film that starts slowly and builds steadily up to its climax, never loosening its grip for a second. Alex Ebert’s score reinforces this: often just the one note, it sounds eerily metallic, guaranteed to put your nerves just slightly on edge. Chandor, of course, has chosen his cast with precision. Alongside Isaac, who is fast becoming one of the most versatile actors around (Inside Llewyn Davis, The Two Faces of January) and Chastain, there’s David Oyelowo as the D A who’s investigating Morales and is just as morally ambiguous as his target.
J C Chandor has done it again! He’s given us a tense crime drama about the underbelly of the American dream that works just as well on DVD as it does in the cinema. If anything, the smaller screen is the better option, as it intensifies some of the scenes between Abel and Anna. And, even better, it’s a film that happily stands more than one watching. A most impressive film.
A Most Violent Year is released on DVD on Monday, 18 May.