And you thought Michael Corleone didn’t want to be a gangster.
A Most Violent Year, the most recent film by J.C. Chandor (director of the excellent Margin Call and All Is Lost), reunites former Juilliard classmates Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain in a slow-burn thriller that is set in New York City in the turbulent year of 1981.
Isaac plays Abel Morales, the head of an oil company that is on the brink of massive expansion thanks to a long-desired business deal. After putting down a hefty deposit on this deal (with a 30 day time constraint to come up with the rest of the money), Abel’s fortunes take a turn for the worse as the violence in the city finally begins affecting his business; trucks full of thousands of dollars of fuel are stolen and the drivers begin to fear for their lives. This turn of events, along with a possible indictment by the District Attorney (played with aplomb by Selma’s David Oyelowo), makes for a particularly stressful time for Abel. His business woes are compounded by his wife, Anna, a mobster’s daughter who thinks that Abel is too forgiving with those that have crossed him. When one of Abel’s driver’s decides to arm himself and gets into a firefight with would-be robbers, Abel’s situation begins to spiral out of his control and he’s forced to reconsider just how far he’s willing to go to see this deal go through.
Oscar Isaac is an incredible actor. He’s great in everything he’s in and he continues to impress with his turn as Abel Morales. Abel is a man in a corrupt business trying to cling to his strict moral code. He doesn’t want to be a gangster, but it seems that at every turn, circumstances are forcing him nearer and nearer to the person he swore he’d never be. Abel’s exacting nature, as well as his struggle with not compromising his morals is perfectly portrayed by Isaac, who is able to convey a man who at any time is mere seconds from snapping; his desire to earn his success and for it to be known that he has earned it is an incredibly engaging character trait and one that the film explores well. Yet Abel is not a showy character, rather Isaac portrays this constant tension in the smallest, subtlest ways. A truly compelling performance. I’m excited to see what he brings to his role in Star Wars: The Force Awakens; he definitely deserves a big hit.
The other half of this film belongs to Jessica Chastain, who is brilliant as always. Anna, the company’s bookkeeper and mother to Abel’s three children, is caring, yet assured in what she wants for her family and their future. Once that is threatened, she is a woman full of withering glares and acidic wit. Every time she threatens to get her father involved in the situation, Abel’s reaction is telling enough of what that means. Chastain, however, doesn’t stray into caricature, and no matter how sarcastic or threatening Anna is, she is still grounded, and very human in her vulnerabilities, which are glimpsed as the film progresses. She is the second half of a one-two punch of a film; without either actor, it would have collapsed, but thankfully, both not only met the challenge of portraying these people, but excelled.
However, though Isaac and Chastain are excellent, I was most impressed with newcomer Taylor Foreman-Niko, who plays Football Player #9 in the scene where Abel visits his brother during a football practice. Despite appearing in perhaps two seconds of actual screen time, Foreman-Niko imbues his character with such pathos that I was left slack-jawed and stunned when he exited the film. That Foreman-Niko was able to accomplish so much without a word of dialogue and while being largely obscured, some forty feet beyond Isaac in the background of the scene, is a wonder. A powerhouse performance; this is one that I will remember for years to come and I am surprised that this performance was completely ignored by the awards circuit this season. I’m excited to see what this young, muscular, handsome, charming actor does next.
As far as the film’s direction and writing, Chandor once again impresses with organic dialogue, a tight story, and assured direction that harkens to the thrillers of the time. Particularly, his framing of two-way dialogue scenes is simple, yet striking. Chandor also injects a foot chase with a refreshing, grounded normality that makes it that much more exciting. The score, penned by Alex Ebert, is sparsely used, yet oddly appropriate, consisting mainly of some sort of mournful, synth organ. It accented the film perfectly, lending it a period appropriate mood while not sounding cliché or pandering to nostalgia.
In all, A Most Violent Year is an excellent, slow-burn of a thriller; and the early 1980s setting is refreshing in a genre that tends to focus elsewhere in history. However, it is a dialogue driven drama and I would imagine that the same blood-thirsty people who were disappointed by the lack of violence in There Will Be Blood, or the horticultural enthusiasts that were confused as to why The Constant Gardener didn’t feature more actual gardening, may be annoyed that A Most Violent Year is a more cerebral experience than a visceral one. That beings said, it is yet another brilliant entry in J.C. Chandor’s growing filmography and I’m excited to see whatever he does next. Especially another collaboration with Taylor Foreman-Niko, pictured below.