REVIEW: “A Most Violent Year”

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Writer and director J.C. Chandor’s young filmmaking career has offered us two diametrically opposed films. His first movie was the wearisome, heavy-handed Wall Street critique “Margin Call”. His second film was the gripping, solitary survival drama “All is Lost”. “Margin Call” was a talky, dialogue-heavy film while “All is Lost” had only a few spoken words. “Margin Call” featured a huge impressive cast while “All is Lost” featured only Robert Redford. Two very different movies in terms of story and filmmaking approach, but two films that had me very interested in what Chandor would do next.

His third feature is “A Most Violent Year”, an unorthodox organized crime movie with a very deceptive title. This isn’t a prototypical gangster action flick. It’s a slow-burning drama set in 1981 New York City. As evident by Chandor’s other films, he is most interested in telling his stories through layered and well-defined characters. We may get that through copious dialogue or revealing observations, but his characters are his predominate storytelling tool.

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In “A Most Violent Year” our main character of focus is Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), a dedicated and hard-working owner of a heating oil company. It’s a tough business environment but Abel has managed to grow his company mostly through legal means. We get hints that there are organized crime influences not only within the heating oil business but also in Abel’s family. Yet despite possible connections, Abel seeks to do things the right way, in hopes of avoiding any possible conflict with crime bosses or the law.

That goal becomes more difficult after his trucks begin to be hijacked during delivery runs. This creates a number of problems for Abel. The oil being stolen is taking a financial toll on his company. His firecracker wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) urges him to fight violence with violence. A local Teamsters head pressures Abel to break the law and arm his drivers. And to make matters worse, an ambitious Assistant District Attorney (David Oyelowo) is investigating Abel’s company which threatens to derail a vital business acquisition.

Chandor slow-cooks all of these ingredients, meticulously building his tension at a deliberate but effective pace. There is a very strategic flow to the story and I can see where some may long for more action or a quicker tempo. But I think that would undo much of what Chandor is going for. This film isn’t about gunfights and physical violence. It’s about a man desperate to avoid all of that even though it lingers in the background and around every corner.

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There is something to be said about sitting back and watching good actors work. That is one of this film’s great pleasures. Oscar Isaac, with his well-groomed appearance and camel-hair coat, is wonderfully convincing selling us on Abel’s shaky confidence and good intentions. Chastain is also very good although there were moments when she came across as a little too big and showy. And I also have to mention Albert Brooks. Simply put he is just flawless playing Abel’s attorney who always seems to know more than he lets on. And while it is a relatively small part, David Oyelowo is always a delight.

“A Most Violent Year” is a very focused film that incorporates some of the tricks from J.C. Chandor’s other movies while also setting itself apart from them. The early 80s setting is impressively realized and the cold, wintry hues help relay the needed tone. The dialogue is sharp and intelligent. The performances are precise and confident. Most importantly the story itself pulled me in and what others may see as languid storytelling I see as uniquely fresh. Chandor’s third effort is a rich and gritty character-driven thriller that proves him to be one of the filmmakers that demands to be noticed.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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34 thoughts on “REVIEW: “A Most Violent Year”

    • Thanks bro. Totally agree bro. Considering some of the films nominated for Oscars, this movie’s omission is a real shame. I wasn’t a huge fan of Margin Call, I really liked All is Lost, but this is Chandler’s best IMO.

  1. Very good review, and not simply because I agree with it! But I do agree with it! It’s a cracking film and I’m glad it keeps the violence (mostly) at arm’s length. Really gripping stuff.

    • Thanks so much Stu. So glad it finally opened up in my area. This was my second time seeing it and it solidified my love for it. Did you like Chandler’s other films? I really wasn’t crazy about “Margin Call” but I really liked “All is Lost”. For me this was better than both of them.

      • I haven’t seen the other two but Mark W suggested I should. Margin Call appeals a little more to me, I have to admit, but I’m keen to see both.

      • For me “Margin Call” was a little flat not to mention heavy-handed. All is Lost was so compelling and Chandler’s ability to tell his story with such tight restrictions amazed me. But as I said, A Most Violent Year tops them both in my book.

    • Thanks man. Appreciate it. I’m a bit disappointed it didn’t get more Oscar recognition. Definitely better than several of the films getting nominations.

  2. Great review Keith! I’m actually glad to hear this is more of a slow-burn thriller and character-driven piece. I don’t mind the slower pace and less action if the story and acting are good and sounds like this one ticked those boxes. I like “Margin Call” a lot and the two leads here so I can’t wait to see it!!

    • Thanks Ruth! You don’t want to miss this one. I’m with you on the two leads and they both shine especially Isaac. So happy to see him getting quality roles and attention for them. I would be anxious to hear your take on this one.

      It’s funny, to me this should be considered a 2015 movie due to its release date, but it’s not. It showed on a few screens last year. One thing is for sure, the Academy absolutely snubbed it. Can’t believe it got nothing!

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  4. Great work bud, this movie may be a quiet one but man is it getting great marks! I don’t think I’ve seen it so much as get less than a ~ 80% from those who’ve had the chance to comment on it. I can’t believe I forgot to mention Albert Brooks in my own piece on this! Wow! He was up there in terms of my favorite aspects. He was so, so good.

    And just a little bit of friendly nit-picking, his name is J.C. Chandor — I think you have him as Chandler here. 🙂

    • That’s not a nit-pick! Thank you VERY much. That’s something that needed correcting. I’ve been calling the dude chandler since Margin Call! LOL!!!

      Brooks was amazing wasn’t he. He is like the perfect supporting actor particularly in films like this. And as for the film itself – brilliant. And wouldn’t you agree that the Academy really screwed up but ignoring this one? I mean give me a freakin’ break.

      • Hahah that’s too funny dude. That makes me wonder whose names I’ve been misspelling/mispronouncing for awhile. I’m sure there are several lol. Glad I could be of service there. 😀

        I know, the lack of inclusion of this one is pretty. . .. inexcusable really. The lack of bombast and typical Hollywood-isms in this film would make one think it’s ripe for the plucking. But this is the Acaedemy that thought it wise to exclude The LEGO Movie from Best Animated Features, so there we go.

      • It pisses me off although I know it shouldn’t. I mean the Academy has a track record of completely blowing it. But still I do respect them mainly because of their long history. But omissions like this……..

  5. I was quite underwhelmed by that one. Loved Chastain, finally some fire in her, but I felt it was insanely jarring when she disappeared for the large chunk of latter part of the movie

    • Bummer but I can see where the film would either work for someone or not. It seems like you must latch on to it from the beginning and if you don’t it’s not going to do much to pull you back. I really connected early on so overall it worked for me well.

  6. Great review Keith. I just saw this one and I have to agree Chandor is certainly a director worth paying attention to. I really admired the ambiguity of Abel’s character and the gradual way Chandor unfurls Chastain’s character too.

    • Thank you. Those are two great observations. there is this lingering ambiguity about Abel, his intentions, and about what he knows. And yes, Chastain is peeled back one small layer at a time. Good stuff!

  7. Nearly missed this review, man. Just caught in among my emails. Excellent review, bro. I agree with many, if not all, of your points here. It’s a brilliant flick that benefits greatly from it’s slow approach, keen eye for mood and detail and superb performances. This could and probably should have been included in many Oscar categories.

    • Hey thanks man. I’m really having a hard time digesting the Academy completely shunning this one especially when I look at some of the nominees. This is starting to sound routine but Oscar Isaac is so good here.

      It took it forever to finally get to my area, but it was well worth the wait.

      • The academy have many big mistakes this year and this definitely one of them? Still not seen American Sniper yet but there’s no way Cooper is better than Isaac here. Isaac was completely shunned last year with Inside Llewyn Davis too. It’s not on, man!

      • Oh that’s right. I forgot about the Isaac screw over from last year. Well, I think he is too good. They will have to recognize him at some point. On the other hand this is the same Academy who never gave Cary Grant an acting Oscar.

      • Blatant! It’s only to make themselves look good. Like you say, though, the day will come when Isaac can no longer be ignored. He’s one of the most consistent around just now.

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