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A Most Violent Year

January 16, 2015
A Most Violent Year

Back in 2011, Jessica Chastain had a huge year. She starred in five feature-length narrative films, one feature documentary, and a short; the worst of them was The Help, and she was charming in that one. She’s was hardly absent in 2012 or 2013, but 2014 has her back with a vengeance in Miss Julie, Christopher Nolan’s massive Interstellar, her own passion project with Ned Benson The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, and she closes it out with J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year. Whatever your feelings on 2014 as a year for movies overall, this certainly has been another strong showing by one of the finest new talents this decade. If there’s any complaint I have about her latest film, it’s that she doesn’t have enough to do in it.

The real star here is Oscar Isaac. He may not work in the same intense bursts as Chastain, but he’s been building a solid career with three or four significant films every year since 2011, from supporting roles in Sucker Punch and Drive to leads in In Secret and Inside Llewyn Davis, and he’s set for starring parts this coming year in both the new Star Wars and the new X-Men movies. Isaac has power and range as an actor, and if anyone deserves to upstage Jessica Chastain it’s him.

And this is all before talking about Chandor himself as a writer and director. After his feature debut with the incisive and insightful Margin Call, he directed Robert Redford in All is Lost, which was certainly one of the most original and unusual films of 2013. With A Most Violent Year he chases after no less a target than The Godfather: Part II.

Isaac plays Abel Morales, a hispanic immigrant trying to build a business in 1981 New York City. That business just happens to be in heating oil, a notoriously mobbed-up market he got into through his wife, Anna (Chastain), whose father is a well-known gangland figure. Still, he’s trying to do it as legitimately as possible, but there are a few corners that just have to be cut to compete. And even if he’s the cleanest of a dirty bunch, the little immigrant-run business is the one that gets picked on by the district attorney (David Oyelowo) set to clean up the heating oil business in the city. Meanwhile, one of his competitors is hijacking his trucks as they go on their rounds through the city, scaring his drivers into making some dangerous decisions. And all of this comes down as Abel tries to solidify his position with a canny real estate deal.

Chandor sets all these pieces into motion with ease; the intricate story is laid out clearly without feeling like there’s a lot to explain. He builds the tension perfectly, placing us inside Abel’s head as the pressures mount. Isaac is wonderfully expressive as Abel, who plays like a clear callback to Pacino’s Michael Corleone. But where Diane Keaton’s Kay Corleone was simply horrified at her husband’s bloody hands, Chastain’s Anna Morales has a lot more going on under the surface than fear for her family’s safety. These three great talents of the last four or five years all come together with a fantastic supporting cast and crew to deliver one of the best gangland dramas in recent memory.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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