Film Review: A Most Violent Year

A Most Violent Year Poster

A Most Violent Year Plot Summary:

New York City, 1981, an owner (Oscar Isaac) of a heating and oil company has just purchased a facility in prime location for his business.  As Abel is on the cusp of becoming very powerful in his industry, a faceless enemy tries to bring him down through violence and robbery, while a DA (David Oyelowo) tries to indict his company in a war against the industry itself.

Earlier this year, I praised director Bennett Miller for creating a tense and nerve-racking environment in Foxcatcher.  While not quite as strong as that film, director J.C. Chandor deserves similar accolades for what he’s able to accomplish in A Most Violent Year. Chandor takes fairly generic subject of a man trying to increase the brand of his business, and turns it into a gut-wrenching all-out pressure cooker of a film. This is only Chandor’s third feature film, but with All Is Lost and Margin Call already under his belt, this is without question a director to pay attention to in the coming years. As great as Chandor is in the directing chair, much of the credit has to go to Oscar Isaac, a guy who is barreling through the ranks as of the best actors working in Hollywood today.

V Year pic 1

I think everybody is very aware of who Oscar Isaac is by now. He’s popped up in a lot of smaller roles like Body of Lies and Drive, but his big break out was last year’s Inside Llewyn Davis, in which many thought he should have gotten an Oscar nomination. In A Most Violent Year, he excels even that performance. Isaac is charismatic, but not in a Robert Downey Jr. type way. It’s a lot more subtle. In one of the best acted scenes you’ll see all year, Isaac’s character (Abel) trains a new crop of salesman, and after this monologue, I would buy poisoned ketchup from this guy.

Even though Abel is a cold character at times, he’s a guy you root like hell for. He’s constantly fighting battles left and right in order to close the deal that will propel his business into the next stratosphere. In a city and industry that is full of violence and corruption, Abel does it cleanly. The most engrossing part of this whole movie is seeing whether or not he’ll crack. Every character aggressively tries to push him onto an immoral path, but Abel remains steadfast. As the movie goes on though, and the situations become more complicated and intense, you see that armor begin to crack, and that’s what makes this film so fascinating. Ironically, it’s Abel’s own wife who does the most pushing, as Jessica Chastain gives an equally impressive performance as Anna.

What a year for Jessica Chastain, who needs no introduction. It’s established early that her character has mob ties, and as unknown enemies try and force Abel out of his new purchase, Anna desperately wants him to fight violence with violence. This character is a ticking time bomb who could go off at any minute. This is a woman you don’t want to meet in a dark alley, and Chastain plays it perfectly sadistically. I don’t want to spoil too much, but let’s just say there’s a scene with a deer that sums up her character perfectly.

The movie is littered with great supporting characters all around. David Oyelowo is having quite the year also. While certainly not as monumental as his performance in Selma, Oyelowo as the DA is the perfect antagonist to Abel. He’s so desperate to clean up Abel’s dirty industry, and stands in his way like the ultimate pest. Albert Brooks pops up as Abel’s right hand man, and it’s always good to have him around. One of the most powerful roles is Elyes Gabel as Julian, a hardworking blue collar truck driver in Abel’s company. He’s truly the emotional weight of the film and is integral to the plot. Even in limited screen time, Gabel does a great job of getting the audience to like him, which makes his decisions as the film progresses that much more heartbreaking.

V year pic 2

In addition to directing, Chandor pens the script, and I was really impressed with how tight and effective it was.  Again, this is subject matter that on paper isn’t very interesting, but Chandor does a fantastic job of making it riveting as all hell.  There’s a simple argument between Abel and the head of his bank (John Procaccino) that is film conflict at the highest level. All the conflicts Abel has through out the movie are superb, and what’s even more impressive is that it all stems from basically an unknown enemy. You don’t really know who’s behind all this, but it totally works. As a director though, Chandor continues the promise he showed from All Is Lost, including a chase scene that was very uniquely filmed.

Where the film falls a bit short is in the third act. There are a few lulls, and some very quick character shifts that were resolved way too quickly. One of the biggest strengths of the film is the mood Chandor creates, where something bad could happen at any second, although a few moments here and there are very telegraphed. Once Chandor works out a few kinks, he’ll no doubt become a great director who’s already delivered one hell of a picture with A Most Violent Year. This is a movie that should be considered for Oscars in all major categories, but sadly it will be forgotten, and that’s a damn shame.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10 (Really Great)

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Daniel Cohen is the Film Editor for Pop-Break. Aside from reviews, Daniel does a weekly box office predictions column, and also contributes monthly Top Tens and Op-Ed’s on all things film. Daniel is a graduate of Bates College with a degree in English, and also studied Screenwriting at UCLA. He can also be read on www.movieshenanigans.com. His movie crush is Jessica Rabbit. Follow him on Twitter @dcohenwriter.
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Daniel Cohen is the hard-boiled Film Editor for the Pop Break. Besides reviews, Daniel writes box office predictions, Gotham reviews and Oscar coverage. He can also be found on the Breakcast. If Daniel was sprayed by Scarecrow's fear toxin, it would be watching Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen on a non-stop loop.