Following Margin Call and All Is Lost, J.C. Chandor’s 2014 continues to deliver challenging movies with his latest release, A Most Violent Year. This ‘80s set drama is cloaked in stark detail and the film’s atmosphere and mood is heightened by a pair of strong performances from Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain.
Isaac is Abel Morales, a self made man who runs a successful oil company. He’s about to close a deal that will expand his business but outside forces threaten the outcome, along with his future as a legitimate businessman. Chastain is his wife Anna, a Lady Macbeth-like character who pushes Morales onward, often over and beyond his own ethical limitations.
The character name Abel Morales is a fitting one for Chandor’s protagonist. The name Abel has parallels with the biblical character and it shows a man willing to sacrifice everything for what he believes in. Meanwhile, Morales mirrors ‘morals’, and Isaac’s character appears to believe that he has achieved his success through honest means. The likelihood of this is questionable but there’s no doubt he believes it. A Most Violent Year is a parable, a morality tale set in a corrupt New York City at the tail-end of the 1970s, before it was cleaned-up and rebranded in the 1980s.
Sidney Lumet’s morally corrupt dramas from the ‘70s and ‘80s are an obvious touchstone for Chandor, with the crispy snow-drenched visually adding a coldness to a film where there are no heroes and villains. Isaac is excellent as Morales, a man who believes he’s the only honest man in a city of criminals. He’s not of course, but Isaac plays him as a man who is losing his focus on who he is and what he wants to become. Chastain also impresses as the darker side of the coin to Isaac’s tarnished optimist. Her take on Anna Morales is as the practical one in the relationship, who believes that her husband can’t overcome his troubles by talking. Also included in the cast is an almost unrecognisable Albert Brookes as Isaac’s lawyer and friend, while David Oyelowo is the District Attorney intent on bringing Morales to book for his illegal business practices.
A modern take on crime films of the 1970s, A Most Violent Year is a study in quiet cinematic contemplation. It’s a character study and an intense family drama, but more importantly it’s a sign that J.C. Chandor is a fearless filmmaker.