Isaac stars as Abel Morales, a heating oil man trying to play things straight in a corrupt and violent world around him on the eve of a deal that will put him over the top of his competitors. With his trucks being stolen and his drivers attacked, the drama around him and his company puts his investment at risk and the film follows Abel’s struggles to keep it all together.
A Most Violent Year’s pacing is going to turn off some viewers. Isaac never blows up, the film isn’t full of huge dramatic moments, it is a series of small incidents that lead our protagonist on his journey. Watching Abel juggle endless struggles at every turn is compelling, as he is often having to dig himself out of one hole, only to fall into another.
Isaac is endlessly watchable as the brooding and quiet Abel and his ability to show so much intensity without ever resorting to an over the top performance is most impressive. Isaac is quickly becoming one of our best actors working today, and while he was better as Llewyn Davis last year his portrayal here isn’t that far behind. The poise he has to show in the face of adversity to keep his dreams alive, he has to play by a set of rules that none of his competitors do, and Isaac shows the strength needed to do that while also bearing the helplessness that can make one feel.
Jessica Chastain plays Abel’s wife, Anna, and Chastain plays here as a wild card without ever going over the top. Anna’s dad has unsaid, yet clearly heavy, ties to organized crime and her seemingly ease of willingness to use those connections leaves a lot of weight over the film and Abel’s head throughout the picture. Chastain is always great and here she gets to show off yet another performance that feels different from everything else before it. Chastain’s Anna is a tough cookie, but she never feels like she is playing to a type that many women fall into when playing the “tough crime wife” role.
Albert Brooks is also fantastic as the family lawyer and there wasn’t enough of him here as you are so happy to have him back every time he pops up on screen. Again, Brooks avoids the slimy nature that an actor might take on playing a lawyer like this, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t know all the dirty little secrets either. Brooks also provides some needed levity in the film as he proves again and again how sharp his comic timing can be without losing the tone of the film.
J.C. Chandor has now made three films and I have always held that as the point at which we can start to take stock on what kind of filmmaker someone is. Chandor is looking better than most at this point in his career as he has made three very distinct films that are each rather successful films. Margin Call and All Is Lost feel very different that A Most Violent Year, but his filmmaking ability has gotten sharper and sharper with each film. I wouldn’t say that Chandor has a distinct style, but his ability and desire to be a sort of chameleon, changing looks and genres with each film has me hopeful he could be our next Soderbergh. As a writer/director he has shown his ability to create believable worlds and that doesn’t change in A Most Violent Year. He quietly and efficiently builds out this world of heating oil in 1981 and does so without any clear exposition dump. The tension that he mounts in the film’s couple of set pieces is palpable, with a pair of chase sequences that go up against any other chase I saw this year. Chandor’s restraint in the film will come off as dull to many, but his film operates the way Abel does, never needing to go for those big moments and his cast follows suit. The only shortcoming worth pointing out is a sub-plot with one of the drivers feels just a bit lost and undercooked, but this is a minor quibble in the grand scheme of things. Chandor’s visual flair remains sharp here as well. It might not be as inventive and grand as All Is Lost, but there isn’t a rough edge to be found in this beautifully put together picture.
A Most Violent Year certainly doesn’t have the bombast that some viewers want in their crime films, but Chandor has crafted a restrained and compelling crime story regardless. Isaac, Chastain and Brooks all deliver performances worth seeking out and I think you will find Chandor’s tale something really worth watching if you aren’t demanding shoot outs and foul-mouthed gangsters in your crime sagas.