FILM REVIEW: A Most Violent Year (2014, Chandor)

J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year offers a glimpse into one of New York’s most violent years, but ultimately offers a unique exploration into the breakdown of the American Dream, classism, and morality itself. Soaked in a relatively dark palette, Chandor’s film contrasts from his last project, All is Lost; containing a fleshed out screenplay, while managing to divert his film from traditional crime conventions.

A slow burner, Chandor’s directional abilities to create tension stem from drawn out shots, and choices to steer away from constant graphic violence. Instead of focusing solely on the events of the winter of 1981, he uses this setting to create a gripping thriller, while enveloping relevant ideas. Set in this period, the film centres on an immigrant, Abel (Oscar Isaac), and his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), who have built their business empire in New York City. Yet, the paradox is that while the very act of violence surrounds them, Abel constantly desires to preserve the ‘right’ and legal way of doing business. He acts as the good face of the company, always insisting that he has always been an honest man – while his wife fiddles with the money behind the scenes. But as an investigation into their company by the police progresses, questions arise to the necessity of violence and corruption to advance in society. It isn’t a new idea, but Chandor nevertheless keeps it fresh and intriguing, by stretching out the film’s ideas through its slow pace and distinctive plot.

While concurrently challenging the very essence of the American Dream, the attacks on Abel’s business from an ‘unknown source’ express the uncertainty of existence itself, and the arbitrary way the world grants success. Is it through hard work? Is it through violence? Or is it just completely random? Chandor leaves us guessing with these ideas, but also doesn’t forget to leave his mark on the film too, by positioning a dramatic foil to Abel to offer an interrogation into why others are not deemed to be destined for success, compared to others.

Additionally, the strain between Abel and Anna’s marriage adds another layer to the already tense subjects regarding morals. Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac deliver astonishing and wide-ranging performances, and lead this film with their compelling chemistry and strong-willed natures. Isaac’s acting reminds me of his looked-over performance in The Two Faces of January, but with more screen time, he gives a nuanced and riveting performance as a man tortured by his ideals. Chastain can still do no wrong, and that is exhibited through her dynamic ability to raise the stakes of the film’s already palpitating drama.

Collaborating with Alex Ebert, whose score drove All is Lost beautifully; this time, Ebert’s score is much more subtle. It rumbles, broods and is seemingly less extravagant than his already unconventional All is Lost material. But it provides the right atmosphere to the film’s permeating uneasiness.

This isn’t your typical ‘gangster’ movie. In fact, that’s what makes A Most Violent Year so fantastic. Chandor’s niche vision expands to a never-ending critique of corruption, and how violence will continue to exist in different forms – if not, physically, then within systems of power.

Directed by J.C. Chandor
Produced by J.C. Chandor, Anna Gerb, Neal Dodson
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Oscar Isaac, David Oyelowo, Albert Brooks

RATING out of 5

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