Every year there are a number of films and actors who get snubbed at the Academy Awards. I only complain when it’s really, really egregious because the fact is, when you’re talking about a snubbed film or star and someone counters with “alright, who would you bump out then?” it becomes a little more difficult. This year is no different. There are some truly incredible films nominated for Best Picture. There are also a few that might feel a little hard done by. Having just seen the film, I would argue that A Most Violent Year could be one of them.
An immigrant chasing the American Dream in a big city is not exactly original subject matter. In this case, we follow Oscar Isaac’s character, Abel Morales, who is looking to grow his fuel empire in 1981 New York. He, along with his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) and attorney (Albert Brooks) he signs a contract which involves him putting down a 40% down payment on a massive riverside oil terminal that will guarantee success, but with the stipulation that if he doesn’t pay the other 60% in 30 days, he loses his money and the terminal. A risky move. The film then follows his quest to get the money, legitimately, despite violence and corruption taking place within his industry and the shadow of his wife’s mobster father looming over him and his desire to follow a morally sound path.
It’s a different take on the central leading man, ruling over his empire character. Usually audiences have been used to a man who is a criminal. An anti-hero. Or we see a character like Michael Corleone sink into evil and violence. This is a different man. This is a man who really, really wants to succeed and build his empire without succumbing to the pressures that continue to weight on him. It is a character that dominates this story, and without an incredible performance, the film would crumble. Fortunately, Oscar Isaac was up to the task. It’s the performance of his career, even outdoing his work on Inside Llewyn Davis. He was incredible. His conviction is clear and his resolve is strong, and Isaac creates a character we really want to pull for. At every junction and opportunity for him to stray from the good path, we urge him not to. We see his conviction and we want to believe that his way can work. His fiery interactions with his wife, who is from a much darker side of life, show us the passion he has. One scene where he is giving some young, newly hired salesman a pep talk on how to close a sale is absolutely incredible and riveting. One of the finest speeches in a film this year, delivered with power, but incredible restraint that makes it all the more believable.
Alongside Isaac is a powerful performance from Jessica Chastain as the wife who stands by her husband’s side but also tempts him to the ‘easier’ route of crime and force. It’s a character that isn’t as complex and doesn’t give Chastain the same challenge as Isaac, but she’s as good as always. The character is not the usual ‘bad wife’ in that she is clear cut on one side. Chastain creates a woman who partly wants her husband to do it his way, and seems to be inspired by his conviction, but at other times wishes he would do what she deems is necessary. A symbolic scene involving a recently hit deer on the road showcases just what she is willing to do, where he may not be. The supporting performances from David Oyelowo as a District Attorney seeking to bring charges down on Abel’s company, and Albert Brooks as the lawyer, in a Robert Duvall in the Godfather type role are very strong in their time on screen.
I mentioned already the word ‘pressure.’ That’s a brilliant word to describe this film. It doesn’t have the usual elements that a crime movie have, and this will certainly limit it’s mass appeal. It doesn’t have the big name good guy, battling a crime empire. It doesn’t have the evil crime boss, ordering hits and building his empire through murder and deception. It has a man caught between these two worlds. He’s just trying to do business. He wants to murder his competitors with good business. It’s a dynamic that creates an incredible sense of tension that continues to build and build as the film continues. His drivers are robbed and assaulted. His commitment from the bank for loans are in jeopardy. The D.A. is closing in. His wife is commanding him to take more serious measures to protect their family. He attempts to stand tall, but as a viewer, each time one of these challenges appeared I began to fear more and more that Abel couldn’t withstand it. The dynamic of wanting him to hold to his morals means every single scene seems like a critical moment, because if he chooses the dark side just once it will open a door that can’t be closed. Very few films can have this sense of importance attached to almost every single moment. It’s actually exhausting, and will hold your attention throughout the entire 2 hour running time.
The tone of the film is complimented flawlessly by the cinematography. The colors of the film fit the blue collar oil industry of 1980’s New York. They’re faded, grainy and dull. The weather is cold, snowy and gloomy. In a lot of ways, the film looked like it had been filmed in the 1980’s legitimately. The film opens to the sounds of Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler) by Marvin Gaye, and that alone put me in the perfect mood for the film I was going to see. Director J. C. Chandor and Cinematographer Bradford Young craft a really great looking movie overall, and get everything right in all the most vital scenes. Again, the favorite to me is the slow burning speech from Abel to his young salesmen about the importance of a long stare when trying to close a sale.
Overall, A Most Violent Year comes in right next to Nightcrawler as the best film not to have been nominated for Best Picture. It is a slow burning film that builds the tension at a perfect but unrelenting pace until it is almost difficult to bear. It includes some incredibly memorable moments, and some fantastic performances from all parties, particularly Oscar Isaac. As he tells his young salesmen, stare at your customer and ‘hold the eye contact longer than is comfortable’. I certainly held my stare at the screen for the full two hours during A Most Violent Year.
Check out the trailer here if you haven’t seen it: