"When it feels scary to jump, that is exactly when you jump. Otherwise you end up staying in the same place your whole life.And that, I can't do."
J.C Chandor has certainly built up a very credible career as a writer and director. His latest project, a gritty and stylish crime drama also features some new editions to the Star wars universe. One would think that Scorsese, Leone and Coppola had picked the crime epic genre clean, but one would be wrong.
In the winter of 1981, statistically one of the most crime-ridden years in New York city’s history, ambitious Latin-American immigrant and self-made business man Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) and his cold and steely wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) have risked everything on a deal that will either make them or break them. But now thieves, corruption and mobsters begin to drag their hopes down into a dark and dangerous world.
Not only does this film pay homage to crime classics like the Godfather, Scarface and Dog Day Afternoon, A Most Violent Year is a refreshingly new yet nostalgic spin on this tale. It certainly lives up to its namesake but includes the human drama, the emotional impact and the terror that comes with it. Though Morales is not a very… well, moral person, you feel foe him because he’s a dreamer, an aspirer, someone who looked at the American dream and wanted it. Here I saw him go through so many stages of rise and decline that you want to ask him how he continues to compromise to get what he wants. He doesn’t jump in to the idea of being a criminal, its forced upon him, and you sympathise with him, he’s honourable and driven by pride and ambition. It’s hard not to respect a character like that.
This is helped by Oscar Isaac and his very impressive lead performance. He is unrecognisable as the deteriorating businessman turned lowlife who always maintains a sophisticated and intelligent persona while successfully generating sympathy repeatedly. It’s hard not to be reminded of a young Al Pacino as he waves his arms, stresses and generally creeps us all out a bit.
Jessica Chastain gives plenty of talent for us to think about as she pairs up with Isaac to make a quarrelling and reactant pair that encapsulates this suburban background, with a hint of darkness to foreshadow what is to come. Their relationship can be compared to that of a Shakespearean tragedy and never fails to hit home and remind the audience of what is at stake or how much damage has already been done. Chastain acts as a cold, seductive and highly influential figure, with crime heritage from her father that shows up frequently and she is not afraid to show us this character at her best and worst.
Perhaps A Most Violent Year’s pace seems a little slow by modern standards and the story telling technique used has more of an episodic feel to it rather than a fully fleshed out, beginning-middle-end structure. And rather than pick the pace up as the film goes along it seems to get even slower and I can’t really decide whether that is a good thing. I suppose the best answer I can give is that the bad times of his life are emphasised due to the speed of his downfall compared to the speed of his uprising and it makes a break from the norm as most gangster films escalate their scope and pace throughout, this one knows exactly where to start and how to end.
The score reflects all the angst and style of the era, as well as representing the dirtiest and most glamourous of deals. The tension is built up and occasionally erupts in violence, but ironically the main violence in this film is expressed verbally. It comes through in the form of conversation, and I never felt the need to see what the characters were talking about because the performance, writing and execution of all these elements make it an astonishingly gripping sequence of events.
Thanks to some incredible performances and highly stylised camera techniques Chandor is able to craft an epic from a story where not a lot is actually happening. Brutal, impeccably executed and enthralling, as well as emotionally impactful throughout.