A Most Violent Year is one of those would-be award contenders that didn’t make the cut, save for Jessica Chastain’s Best Supporting Actress nomination at this year’s Golden Globes and a not-so-little declaration from the National Board of Review as the Best Picture of 2014. Maybe its slow pace and minimal character development did not do enough for voters, but its strong performances and storyline is enough to bite on for what becomes a surprisingly thrilling film (in its own way).
A graffiti-ladened New York City is the backdrop for Abel (Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and Anna (Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty, Jurassic World) Morales struggles to grow their oil distribution company, one which faces fierce competition, violent sabotage and impending charges by a government watch dog headed by a gentleman named Lawrence (David Oyelowo, Selma, Planet of the Apes.)
The compelling part of the story is birthed out of the violent 1981 setting which was notoriously one of the worst years for crime in New York City. Abel tries to adhere to a business code of conduct rooted in principles of hard work and fairness, whereas his wife Anna is a partial convert who cannot quite shake her Brooklyn roots when it comes to protecting her family and their work. With the cumulative threats of truck hijackings, a hit man, Lawrence’s auditing and a potential expansion deal falling through, Abel sets out to determine who is behind all of his troubles and fix them before it costs him his life’s work and his family.
This type of storyline is akin to one you would find in an episode of The Sopranos. Unlike Tony, Abel has a tighter grasp on his moral compass, which relies on one too many business mottos taken straight out of how-to books and barely changes direction as he faces his obstacles. The little bit of a character arch that is there doesn’t spin out into extremes, but Isaac makes Abel’s good-natured, straight-shoot persona intriguing enough. Anna is a little more fiery and outspoken, but more in vein with Abel’s approach than someone who enjoys melodrama. Chastain brings a sharpness that plays out extremely well opposite Isaac and tends to outshine him; her work in a scene when Lawrence is crashing her child’s birthday party with a search warrant is noteworthy (and also the source of an Oscar snub meme I couldn’t shake while watching.)
The production does not fall too far from that of The Sopranos, either. Director J.C. Chandor (Margin Call) and his team (which features Brian Young, a fantastic cinematographer who also worked on Selma) simulated a gritty aesthetic which is integral for a movie that seems like it really should involve a mob. Although it doesn’t, the hustle dictated by Chandor’s script is interestingly just as compelling when seen through the eyes of a middle-man enterprise that opts to avoid that world, yet still faces its consequences, regardless of how well the owners rock a power suit and camel coat. It is a notable shift from Chandor’s narrative in Margin Call, which tackled a corporation’s activities on the eve of the 2008 financial crisis. If A Most Violent Year is any indication, Chandor really enjoys period-based business-centric dramas – and behind the lens, he’s good at them, too.
I attended an advance screening of A Most Violent Year in Toronto, the tickets for which I won from Free Advanced Screenings in Canada. A Most Violent Year will release in Canada on January 30th by Elevation Pictures.