Thursday, February 12, 2015

'A Most Violent Year' review

Director J.C. Chandor crafted two innovative critical favorites with Margin Call and All is Lost and managed to solidify himself as one of the most promising young directors in Hollywood. Chandor's latest feature, A Most Violent Year, is a gritty and complex crime drama that takes more cues from The French Connection and The Godfather than Chandor's other films. With brilliant performances from Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain, amazing cinematography from Bradford Young and a strong sense of tension, A Most Violent Year is an engrossing crime thriller that becomes more and more interesting as it goes along.

Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is a New York heating and oil magnate in 1981, notoriously the most dangerous year for violent crime in the city's history. Abel and his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) are working on an important deal for a large chunk of land, but many problems have arisen along the way. On one hand, Abel's trucks are constantly being raided and stolen by competitors who are trying to get an advantage. Abel is also running into legal troubles and the District Attorney (David Oyelowo) is in the middle of investigating his company. As his empire threatens to collapse around him, Abel and Anna do whatever it takes to keep the company afloat, gain the rights to the land and keep their American dream alive.

For a film with a title that promises violence, A Most Violent Year only has one graphic scene of gangster-esque carnage. But that doesn't make it any less compelling or interesting. This is a slow film that is paced to perfection, consistently engrossing thanks to Oscar Isaac's performance and the brilliant script. The gorgeous images and sets will keep you engaged at first, but as the film progresses, the stories come together nicely and A Most Violent Year emerges as a good film to get through the January/February doldrums.

Crime dramas often live and die by their ensembles, and A Most Violent Year's is pretty solid. Oscar Isaac carries this film, officially announcing himself as one of the best actors of this new generation. Abel Morales is ambitious, polite, and hard to look away from. His goals and dreams are admirable, but the way that he goes about them is slightly more nasty. He's not a gangster and he's not violent in nature, but he's willing to do whatever it takes to keep his business alive. Isaac maintains Abel's focus, drive and intensity throughout to create a memorable character.

Jessica Chastain is also quite terrific as Anna, the corrupt, commanding and morally loose mob daughter that plays a significant role in her husband's business. Abel is willing to cut a few corners to reach his goals, but Anna is straight-up willing to cheat her way to the top. Chastain has good screen presence and good chemistry with Isaac that makes for some interesting family dynamics.

The supporting cast is led by a group of talented actors who bring a lot to their small roles. David Oyelowo has a bit of a thankless role as Lawrence, the slightly crooked DA who spends his time digging up dirt on Abel's industry. Considering Oyelowo had one of the meatiest roles of the year as MLK in Selma, I couldn't help but feel that he had too little to do in this film. Albert Brooks is very good as Abel's mobster lawyer, who is definitely willing to go to violent measures for Abel's business. Elyes Gabel plays an integral role in the plot as well, bringing a Tony Montana charm to the character of Julian. His character's subplot is somewhat of an enigma, but I was very impressed by Gabel's performance.

Chandor's script is willing to delve deep into the inner workings of business in a way that most crime films don't, which makes the film quite fresh. Abel's exact business is never made crystal clear, but through the dialogue and characters, you pretty much get all you need to know. The script succeeds in building up character and plot to the point where the film becomes expertly tense.

Despite the success of the script, Chandor's direction and Bradford Young's cinematography is what makes this movie memorable. Chandor's clear, articulate camera work builds the film up well and contrasts perfectly with the script. Young's cinematography makes good use of black, white and brown, creating a strong portrait of one of the most dangerous places in history. After Selma and now this, Bradford Young is one of the cinematographers to watch in Hollywood.

A Most Violent Year succeeds on many fronts, but it does take a little while to get going and some of the subplots feel misplaced. The first third of the film is slow and audiences without patience won't be able to stick with this one. Chandor's insistence on keeping up with Julian's story throughout is also somewhat puzzling and I was never truly sure why we needed to continue exploring that story.

In the end, A Most Violent Year is a good film and a minor achievement that will be looked at in a few years as the drama that sparked many careers. Granted, it's not as good as the movies that inspired it (stacking up to The Godfather, The French Connection and Dog Day Afternoon is a tough task), but this is still an entertaining drama with great performances, beautiful images and crisp, strong direction. Chandor, Chastain and Isaac will each go on to have great careers and it'll be cool to look back at A Most Violent Year as one of their better early films.

THE FINAL GRADE:  B+                                            (7.7/10)

Image Credits: Black Film, CBS News, Serving Cinema, A24 Films

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