A Most Violent Year review: Another bold offering from J. C. Chandor

Posted on 27 January 2015
By George Heron
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A double-bill week of Oscar Issac films starts with a trip back in time to New York in 1981. Isaac’s Abel Morales is the owner of an Oil Company trying to be the best at what he does. His latest attempts at expansion are being hampered by what is proving to be A Most Violent Year.

The Oil Company is as cutthroat an industry as any competitive capitalistic venture and Morales is getting it from all sides: his corrupt competitors who may be stealing from him, the District Attorney who thinks he is corrupt and even his wife, who indirectly accuses him of cowardice.

This perception of cowardice is unfounded as the standout feature of this film is the strong principles and character of Morales. He is trying to be an honest man in a dishonest world. He doesn’t believe in stealing from his competitors, deception or violence. He believes in fairness, truth, openness, justice.

In a world where it appears he’s the only one living that way, how will he be able to survive without abandoning some aspect of his morals?

Isaac plays this part to perfection in that he is not perfect. He is totally convincing as the good man in a bad world. He doesn’t even want to succumb to aggression. You feel at any point he could explode in rage but it comes out in a light gasp of frustration or a momentary look of disapproval. It’s an extremely nuanced performance.

Jessica Chastain’s role is just as impressive a performance in terms of demonstrating her versatility. To go from a role like Murph in Interstellar to this and be unrecognisable shows chamelon-like qualities. Chastain’s devoted wife is unquestioningly loyal despite the unconventional business methods of her husband.

David Oyelowo’s supporting role as the District Attorney trying to bring down Morales must feel like a comedown from his last role as Martin Luther King. He brings the necessary authority to such a character and I guess you can’t be the star all the time. There’s a welcome HBO vibe in the rest of the supporting cast with appearances from David Marguiles and Jerry Adler (Mink and the amazing Hesh from The Sopranos) and Glenn Fleshler (True Detective and one of the best things in the disappointing God’s Pocket after Christina Hendricks, of course).

Director and writer J. C. Chandor has already displayed his bold film-making with All is Lost, a film that places Robert Redford in solitude lost at sea in a boat, facing the elements. The boldness here is more in the lack of violence of the protagonist. Someone who doesn’t go in with all guns blazing, who thinks before he acts. Morales negotiates his way out of situations which brings political intrigue into the mix. Something you don’t always find in what looks on the poster like a gangster-esque thriller.