AFI Fest Film Review: A Most Violent Year (★★★½)

a most violent header poster

AFI Film Festival 2014: Destined to be richly admired than outright loved, J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year is a cold, methodical, brilliant gangster film that plunges so deep into the well of Americana darkness that it becomes impossible not to see your own reflection staring back at you from time to time. This film has no room for buckets of violence, explosive melodrama, predictable assassinations, or any of the other tropes that have turned a once devoutly respected genre into little more than entertaining farce. Chandor is concerned with nuance, with motivation, with that integral bridge linking good and evil. When it comes to living the American Dream, attaining it isn’t nearly as difficult as preserving its sanctity…or your own code of ethics for that matter. Guided by spellbinding performances from every member of its cast – especially Oscar Isaac, who once again deserves serious awards consideration for beautifully grounded work – A Most Violent Year shows us the tragic inevitability of crime once the fear of failure seeps into the mind and spreads like cancer.

It is the winter of 1981 and New York City is in shambles. Its streets have become playgrounds for the criminal kingpins and their proxies. Entire neighborhoods, once thought to be safe havens, have now transformed into dilapidated ruins. Then there is Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), an immigrant turned entrepreneur who is one major deal away from controlling it all. His home service company, Standard Heating Oil, can be New York’s salvation…but only at a high price his customers can’t refuse. Business is difficult but booming, and it doesn’t go unnoticed to his competitors that Morales’ “spend high for high quality” mantra seems to be working out just fine. In fact, maybe a little better than “fine” considering the trucks Morales uses to ship the oil have been robbed as of late. Financed by local gangsters who no doubt cannot stand the idea of Morales climbing up the capitalism ladder, these mercenaries go to great lengths to intimidate Morales into submission.

Oscar Isaac may look like a young Al Pacino, but he gives his own human spin on moral disintegration.
Oscar Isaac may look like a young Al Pacino, but he gives his own human spin on moral disintegration.

But these robberies are just a minor bump in the road, right? After all, Abel is about to purchase a huge chunk of real estate to serve as the headquarters for Standard Heating Oil, an investment made with nearly his entire life savings. Unfortunately, Abel is hit with some detrimental news not long after signing a 30-day completion of sale contract with the property’s former owner, Josef (Jerry Adler). Apparently a young, politically motivated district attorney named Lawrence (David Oyelowo) is days away from indicting Morales and his company for several counts of fraud and tax evasion. Lawrence gives Morales a courteous “heads up” after Abel begs the DA to help him put a stop to the truck hijackings. Lawrence refuses and now Morales is looking at a serious blow to his reputation if the news leaks that he’s being investigated for multiple counts of financial crime. As we all know, New York City is a big place but word gets around extremely fast. For the life of him, Abel can’t seem to outrun the very city he’s fighting to thrive in.

Fear not, Chandor doesn’t pity or victimize Morales – he makes it absolutely clear that willingly surrounding oneself with corrupt individuals and bad influences is its own form of culpability. I’m not going to go into heavy spoiler territory, but suffice it to say that Abel’s lawyer (Albert Brooks) and wife (Jessica Chastain) have a very unique way of showing they care. Speaking of the two supporting actors, Brooks hasn’t been this monstrously subtle since Drive, behaving here like the devil on Oscar Isaac’s shoulder who truly believes it pays to take a detour through darkness in order to reach the light on the other side. Then there is Jessica Chastain as Anna Morales, a blissfully perfect upending of the supportive spouse archetype. Chastain’s Anna is instead the assertive, cunning wife with a strict behavioral code that prides itself on metaphorically sleeping with a knife under the pillow. So long as A24 accurately campaigns Chastain in the “Supporting Actress” category, she’ll be the closest thing Boyhood’s Patricia Arquette will have to a challenger all awards season long. Chastain’s performance as Anna is so memorable and authoritative that you honestly feel a huge void in every frame she doesn’t appear in. Anna’s progressive characterization will hopefully challenge every male screenwriter moving forward to up their game when it comes to writing female characters in male-driven film genres.

I fully expect an Oscar nomination for Jessica Chastain...so long as A24 campaigns her in Supporting Actress.
I fully expect an Oscar nomination for Jessica Chastain…so long as A24 campaigns her in “Supporting Actress.”

Catalina Sandino Moreno and David Oyelowo show us why they’re at the top of their fields despite having very few scenes to chomp on in this film, but it’s Elyes Gabel who deserves every “Breakthrough Performer” award he’s likely to be doused with this year. As Abel’s exploited truck driver, Julian, Gabel demonstrates the physical and mental tolls experienced when you are at the bottom rung of society and at the mercy of your employer, who also happens to the gatekeeper to your American Dream. Snapping after so many false promises and on-the-job abuse seems almost customary. Julian’s arc is gut-wrenching to witness but it nonetheless widens the impact of this particular story. Abel may be our leading, young Al Pacino-looking man but his downfall causes a chain reaction affected by all those in his vicinity. Chandor is nothing if not a realist, so don’t expect Morales to have some crazy, ego-stroking “chosen one” arc — rest assured, everyone gets their time in the scorching sun.

Finally, we must discuss the revelation that is and will continue to be Bradford Young. Mesmerizing every frame of the way, Bradford Young’s cinematography might very well be the best in its class this year. It never once comes off gimmicky, self-serving or overly obedient. Young’s camera crawls, stalks, augments, listens, observes, reacts, repels, compels, and ultimately writes a whole new chapter in cinematic possibilities. Oscar Isaac running towards the frame in one crucial scene while the lens softens and then refocuses, the wonderful highway tracking shot, and those poignant medium close-ups that suck up Chandor’s mise-en-scene like it’s the Fountain of Youth? Stunning beyond words! If this gentleman doesn’t get his name read on Oscar nomination morning, I am not sure I’ll be able to console myself. All I can say is thank goodness the cinematography branch is deciding its own “best of” in the field.

In sum, A Most Violent Year is a most compelling drama that demands to be experienced. Chandor still has an irritating habit of negating any sort of human warmth into a scene – which understandably distances him from many filmgoers – but his third outing as a feature filmmaker is a giant step in the right direction. As someone who appreciated Margin Call for what it was, and was totally disappointed in the discombobulated All is Lost, I can say with absolute confidence that Chandor has finally shown us what we’ve always thought him capable of: an auteur, independent filmmaker who can hang with the elite any given day of the year. While no Godfather, this is probably the most intelligent and superbly written gangster film since Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. I’m not sure it’ll make much of an impact on the Academy Award ceremony next year with the exception of “Supporting Actress,” but it has “Critics Top 10 List Pick” written all over it…and who knows, I might join in the year-end adoration.

J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year hits theaters December 31st, 2014. Check out the snazzy trailer below!