Overview: An oil supplier struggles to increase his business in an honorable manner when his city and business are becoming more corrupt and violent. A24; 2014; Rated R; 125 Minutes.
The Game: A Most Violent Year, in the most basic sense, is a movie about the growth and development of a massive empire. Yet each individual scene is weighted with intimate, unnerving energy. The plot is, in essence, a poisoned high stakes poker table, around which the major players are in no hurry to reveal their hands. This film is breathlessly patient, fueled by the certainty that a dam is about to break and something– violence, tragedy, betrayal, something— is about to flood through. In three feature films, Writer/Director J. C. Chandor (All is Lost, Margin Call) has invented himself as many times. His newest effort is muted and gritty in aesthetic, character, and narrative. Chandor draws inspiration from the work of De Palma, Lumet, Mann, and Coppola. When A Most Violent Year is described in comparisons to these great filmmakers, the comparisons should be against their greatest work, and they should be favorably presented. These days films like this– films of this scope, approach, and discipline– don’t come along frequently enough, so we should be unabashed in our praise when they do.
The Players: When an epic story is presented in relatively hushed, bare-bones terms, it is imperative that the performances hold their weight. The work of the ensemble cast of A Most Violent Year is unparalleled by any film in recent years. There are very few (if any) explosive, dynamic moments or monologues to burn performances into the memory of the audience; instead, everything is measured doses, each character is given boundless human value. There are a dozen key players in this movie, and we never lose sight of what each stands to lose or gain.
Oscar Isaac shyly announced his arrival in 2013 as the titular character in the Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis. His turn as oil supplier Abel Morales amplifies that proclamation. Isaac is a top-tier, superstar talent. His performance as Morales is astonishing and complex. By the time Morales explains that he is always in pursuit of the “most right” option, we’ve already come to realize that his principled and righteous approach has its necessary limits.
Jessica Chastain plays Abel’s wife Anna, matching complexity stride-for-stride. Anna, the daughter of a mafia figurehead, is the film’s biggest wildcard. Her onscreen presence moves from sympathetic to terrifying. There aren’t many performers who could bring that sort of volatility to a film. In Chastain and Isaac, Chandor found the perfect pair.
The Turn: In the current century, there have been some incredible broad explorations of the capitalist machine in film. American Psycho, Nightcrawler, There Will be Blood, to name a few. None of those films have a singular shot that symbolically presents this theme more clearly than the image of a straight line of oil spilling from a bullet-hole in a blood-spattered white tanker late in A Most Violent Year. This chilling image works to great effect, not just because of the exceptional alignment, arrangement, and tone of cinematographer Bradford Young, but also because Chandor is a surgical storyteller who has had his skilled hands on all the right nerves every single second leading up to this moment.