Director JC Chandor’s last film was All Is Lost, a powerful drama with a powerhouse performance from Robert Redford, an actor who became an icon of American cinema in the 1970s. Although set in 1981, Chandor’s newest film looks and feels like a film made in that decade. Perhaps one directed by Sidney Lumet or Alan J Pakula that might have starred Redford, if it was made forty years ago.
Instead, A Most Violent Year stars Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain, two talented actors who are just hitting their stride. Isaac was impressive last year as a singer/songwriter in Inside Llewyn Davis and will soon appear in both the new Star Wars film and X-Men: Apocalypse. Chastain received Academy Award nominations for her roles in The Help and Zero Dark Thirty. She currently has Interstellar in theaters and can next be seen in Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak.
Here, Isaac plays Abel Morales, a self-made, sharp but quiet businessman navigating a company that distributes heating oil in New York City. It’s an industry filled with corruption that’s been under investigation for over two years as the film begins. Abel reminds me of Michael Corleone, but without the goons. And he doesn’t make offers you can’t refuse. He’s more like a runner training for a marathon and his race is this weekend.
Chastain is Anna Morales, Abel’s beautiful wife and business partner, and herself the daughter of a man who sold heating oil. The two are on truly equal footing in their marriage and in their business, and their relationship is a refreshingly realistic portrayal of couples that intermingle the two.
While under investigation, Abel’s delivery trucks are robbed with increasing frequency and escalating violence. The robberies are nothing new, but Abel is closing a major deal with the potential to elevate his company above his bottom-feeding competition. The violent robberies of his trucks hit his bottom line and scare his investors. But will his efforts to protect his business end up harming his family? Will we discover Abel is really one of the gangsters he’s fighting with? Or just an imperfect symbol of righteousness?
A Most Violent Year is, at last, a film for adults. There are no superheroes and it’s not based on any prior existing intellectual property. It’s the kind of mature drama that defined the 1970s but has become almost nonexistent. The characters are compelling and violence is treated with a real world respect.
Both Isaac and Chastain turn in Oscar-caliber performances. And they are flanked by brilliant character actors, including an almost unrecognizable James L. Brooks and the veteran New York-based actor Peter Gerety. You might remember Gerety as the judge that McNulty partners with to shake up Baltimore in The Wire. There’s also a memorable performance from Elyes Gabel, who has appeared on Game of Thrones and currently stars on the CBS show Scorpion. The supporting players feel like real people, not just plot points. And like the film’s leads, they make decisions that just feel human. Imperfect but understandable.
JC Chandor and his team have told a compelling story that lives in a realistic world, making the best use of cinema’s most powerful tools. It makes every moment of the film interesting. Even silences feel pregnant with thought.
I highly recommend this film. You can expect some great scenes, great speeches and yes even some violence. But my favorite speech in the film is just one word: stop.
A Most Violent Year opens this weekend in New Orleans at the Theatres at Canal Place. And look for more from Scene on JC Chandor’s next film, The Long Night, which will be filmed in New Orleans. It’s also known unofficially as Deepwater Horizon. We can’t wait to see what Chandor does with the backdrop of the Deepwater Horizon disaster and the resulting Gulf of Mexico oil spill.