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A Most Violent Year
Genre Crime
 
Review:

A Most Violent Year is another film from J.C. Chandor, whose previous efforts Margin Call and All Is Lost have already earned him a spot as an ambitious writer-director with a melancholic disposition. It stars Oscar Isaac from the equally melancholic Inside Llewyn Davis, who finds himself similarly poised in Hollywood. Both director and star are about mood and subtlety, which is leveraged to great effect in this slow-boiling crime drama thriller.

It's New York City 1981, the most dangerous year in the city's history, as we track an ambitious immigrant as he tries to protect his growing business and his family. A Most Violent Year echoes a young Robert De Niro, not only in the mob mentality and casting of Oscar Isaac, but in the gritty, naturalistic flow. It's like The Deer Hunter if it was set in the city, luring us in with an American Dream story set against the odds and background of a ruthless city of industry.

Oscar Isaac is more of a wallflower when it comes to your typical Hollywood lead. He's not in love with the camera and tends to downplay his performances, trading in nuances rather than home run smiles. He allows Jessica Chastain a strong supporting role as his wife, whose cantankerous flair and dolled up look draw more attention. Their uneasy chemistry and opposites attract head space make it a tense and unpredictable relationship. They're supported by David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola and Albert Brooks, underrated actors, who also buy into the slow-and-steady mode of A Most Violent Year.

The tone is subdued and everything about A Most Violent Year falls into this category. The sets, costumes and wardrobe as dull early '80s... the performances are downplayed... the lighting is dim and the pacing is staggered. It's almost like Chandor is trying to effect the film in 1981. While this attention to detail and authenticity adds a layer, it does take some getting used to and tends to drag the 125 minute run time.

While the focus is on the drama within a world of corporate sabotage, there are a few sequences that break the slow-burn pace into a flurry of action. One car chase scene is particularly brilliant as we're given an immersive first person perspective on a take down.

A Most Violent Year's tension rests with Abel Morales, whose name serves as a strong hint at what he's all about. He sticks to his principles under mounting pressure and the duress of difficult circumstances. Central to his character is his moral fortitude and his stubborn unwillingness to be swayed by shortcuts and shady business deals. He's willing to risk everything as long as it doesn't tarnish his reputation as a reliable, dependable, trustworthy self-made man.

It's powerful at times, wrestling with mafia style saboteurs and a mystery as to who is behind the constant threat. As a character study, it's compelling... as a crime drama it's slow but sure-handed... and as a thriller, we're catapulted into action almost as suddenly as a Sergio Leone Western. It could have been set in the Wild West, but finds itself in 1981 with a There Will Be Blood temperament and a The Deer Hunter look and feel.

The bottom line: Slow-boiling


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