What I usually respond to the most viscerally in a movie is imagination—show me something different, something new, refreshing, something I’ve never seen before. Of course, after over a hundred years of motion pictures, absolute originality in movies is a rarity these days, at least in concept and story. However, as writer/director J.C. Chandor (All Is Lost) has proven with his latest release A Most Violent Year, it is possible to tread over familiar ground even in familiar ways and still find ways to make it interesting, compelling and richly textured.
A Most Violent Year is set in New York City in 1981, the movie title referencing the city’s historically high crime rate that particular year. The movie itself focuses on how the violence affects the heating oil business owned and run by Abel Morales, played by Oscar Isaac. Abel’s trucks are getting robbed and he can’t figure out who’s doing it. To make matters worse, he’s about to close a big deal, he’s got the Feds coming down on him with some pending indictments and his wife, played by Jessica Chastain, is pressuring him to find more “inventive” ways to deal with these obstacles. Abel, however, seems to be resistant to every temptation and pressure to become what everyone assumes he is already: a gangster. And here is where A Most Violent Year becomes a Most Interesting Movie. What would The Godfather have been if Michael Corleone had been a law-abiding citizen? Imagine Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, but with principles. A Most Violent Year feels like a gangster movie. It plays like a gangster movie. It has the vibe and story of a gangster movie, but it isn’t a gangster movie. It is an anti-gangster movie. It is a story of a man trying to see if he can do things the right way—and just may get screwed anyway.
What I loved about A Most Violent Year, besides the fact it turns a genre on its ear, is the fact that it feels like such a throwback. This movie not only is set in 1981, but it feels like it could have been made in 1981 as well. It has a pace and a tone of the classic dramas of the time, caked with gritty realism and layered characters. Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain are absolutely transcendent as the couple at the heart here, trying to hold together their company, which may or may not be crooked. Their chemistry, which goes back to when they were classmates at Julliard, is evident in every scene together. Chastain crackles with a raw energy, fiery and powerful. Isaac is much more reserved, but plays Abel with such desperate determination, it is a memorable performance, proving his star-making turn in last year’s Inside Llewyn Davis was no fluke (and his casting in the upcoming Star Wars movie is equally brilliant).
Overall, I do wish A Most Violent Year had been a little less meandering and had more meat to the screenplay, but the performances of Isaac and Chastain more than make up for what the screenplay lacks. Moreover, the throwback vibe of the movie as a whole almost made me forget the fact that I’d seen it all before, and, for me, that’s sometimes the best compliment of all.