2015 / Director. J.C. Chandor.
Review by Shaun Crawford.
1980-81, it turns out, was quite a violent time for New York City. In fact it was the most violent year in The Big Apple's history. From opportunistic crime all the way to grand larceny, the City That Never Sleeps saw it all. An appropriate time for JC Chandor's latest, quiet opus then, A MOST VIOLENT YEAR to be set and to use this NYC as a backdrop for this deliciously, morally challenging crime-drama.
The film focuses on the lives of husband and wife heating-oil business owners, Abel and Anna Morales as they try to secure a business deal that guarantees them a future while fending of the rampant violence and corruption of the city from rival companies and the law.
Like Chandor's previous films; the Oscar Nominated MARGIN CALL and the enthralling, dialogue free ALL IS LOST, AMVY exudes an exceptional sense of time and place from the opening scenes. The film is reminiscent of classic New York stories from yesteryear. This New York City of 1981 is beautifully realised, a backdrop that enhances, not detracts. It's detailed without being showy.
One of the true stars here is Chandor's deceptively complex script. As The Morales' life gradually falls down around their ears the film never takes the obvious way out of its ever increasingly tense scenarios. Predictability isn't on the agenda. The dialogue is refreshingly free of criminal, hard-boiled jingo - there's no 'fuggedaboudit's or 'say hello to my lil friend's, just honest-to-God politeness and directness as you would expect from a businessman, even when he's being pushed to his limits.
Which brings us to Oscar Isaac. If his career has ever been murky (he has been, until recently, the guy behind the guy behind the gun), let those concerns be swept aside from here on in. As self-made immigrant Abel he channels a young Al Pacino, exuding a quite calm with the potential for a volcanic, explosive temper boiling away behind his wry smile as the patriarch of a relatively new family and a self-made, entrepreneurial businessman. What separates Abel from the hard-man cinema icons the film brings to mind is his desire to be a decent businessman; everything has to be above-board and legitimate even when the easy option is to bend or break the law to get ahead in an industry that thrives in corruption. There's more than a shade of Michael Corleone in Abel, albeit, without the violence.
Jessica Chastain, here shaking off her earlier, somewhat softer roles, latches on to Anna Morales, the daughter of a two-bit Brooklyn gangster, with vigor, compounding her husbands list of problems with her impulsive, unpredictable and sometimes violent ways - a MacBeth's wife in Gucci and Prada.
Chandor's handling of the narrative brings to mind the class and confidence of early Coppola, Lumet and, dare it be said, at times, Abel Ferrara. He's as comfortable with a quiet two-hander as he is with a police foot-chase across the 59th street bridge. Even if everything is tied off in a neat little bow when the credits roll, the film is never the worse for it. It comes out the other side of its 2hr running time squeaky clean, much like Abel Morales.
Like his mega-budget, modern contemporary Christopher Nolan, Chandor's output this far has been modest, eclectic, measured and altogether spectacular.
So far he's batting 100. Whatever he does next it is almost guaranteed to be worthwhile.