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Writer/director J.C. Chandor has emerged as one of the best up-and-coming talents, thanks to two critically acclaimed movies under his belt: the Wall Street drama Margin Call and the lost-at-sea drama All Is Lost. On paper, these two movies appear like opposite worlds. The former a dialogue-driven ensemble piece and the latter, a dialogue-free survival story. Thematically though, both movies feature central characters who are being tested and pushed to the edge of their abilities. Now arrives Chandor’s third and most accomplished movie, A Most Violent Year. Once again, it features a central character who is being tested by the characters and world around him.
The movie is a crime drama set in New York City during the winter of 1981, statistically one of the most violent years in the city’s history, and centers on the lives of an immigrant named Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) and his family, trying to expand their business and capitalize on opportunities, as the rampant violence, decay, and corruption of the day drag them in and threaten to destroy all they have built.
Chandor expertly creates a movie full of subtle tension, character-driven storytelling, and period details that feel on-point, without ever slipping into cliché and going over-the-top. He has a tight rein on his directing skills, creating an atmosphere of danger and suspense. The pacing is deliberate, but the slow-build does not take away from the engrossing nature of the story. The movie culminates in an exciting climax, full of surprises and morally complex quandaries. This is aided by richly textured images by talented cinematographer Bradford Young (Selma), who captures the beauty of New York City, but also the grittiness that lives nearby. Composer Alex Ebert lends a haunting and evocative score, which is utilized in a manner of knowing when to pull back and when to unleash it for full impact. The themes of family, love, money, power, and the cost of the American Dream are elevated to an epic level, thanks to Chandor’s approach to story and character. He is channeling some of the best directors of the 1970’s (Scorsese, Lument), who captured the dangerous vibe and corruption of that era. He also assembles a talented ensemble to bring these rich characters to life.
Oscar Isaac, coming off of his strong performance in Inside Llewyn Davis, delivers another memorable performance as a man desperate to have the American Dream, but not willing to cross certain moral boundaries to achieve it. He brings a quiet intensity to the role that achieves an implosive power. Isaac effectively displays the emotional toll that his character endures, while trying to keep his composure as his house of cards begins to chip away. Jessica Chastain, once again shows why she is one of our finest actresses working today, playing Adel’s wife Anna with a steely determination, which energizes the movie in her unpredictability. Chastain gives a powerhouse performance of toughness and tenderness. One of her finest portrayals. The power play between her and Abel are some of the best and most riveting scenes in the movie. You do not want to mess with this Lady Macbeth. The rest of the cast features forceful work by David Oyelowo as a district attorney, whose motives are not clear until the end, Albert Brooks as Abel’s lawyer, and Elyes Gabel as Abel’s driver, who gets more than he bargained for. All of the actors contribute impressively to fill out the details of this threatening world.
Chandor and his talented cast and crew have created one of the best crime dramas I have seen in years. This is filmmaking of the highest order and with Isaac and Chastain by his side, he has a pair of bravura performances from actors working at the peak of their talents. The movie may take place in 1981, but the themes of greed, money, power, and achieving the American Dream are as relevant today as ever before. Chandor brings these elements to vital life and asks us what are we willing to sacrifice for our American Dream.