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Reviews » Theatrical Reviews » A Most Violent Year
A Most Violent Year
Other // R // December 31, 2014
Review by Jeff Nelson | posted December 18, 2014 | E-mail the Author
C O N T E N T
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There are few newer filmmakers out there with a résumé as impressive as that of J.C. Chandor. His first full-length feature titled Margin Call was released in 2011, which is an incredibly well-crafted drama that earned him an Academy Award nomination for "Best Original Screenplay." A couple years later, he released All Is Lost, which is a massively impactful film that manages to make a one-man journey utterly captivating. Much like his first two motion pictures, A Most Violent Year features a couple of engaging performances that are used in order to immerse its audiences into the film. While Chandor works with some interesting themes in this intriguing picture, it isn't exactly his most inspired contribution.

Taking place in New York City in the year 1981, Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is an immigrant with a growing business. He's forced to fight in order to protect his family and their lifestyle during what is considered to be the most violent year in the city's history. With his wife, Anna Morales (Jessica Chastain), having a dangerous family, she continues to insist calling upon them in order to enlist their aid, even against Abel's will.

Perhaps one of the first things that you'll question about A Most Violent Year is the fact that J.C. Chandor's third motion picture doesn't have very much actual violence in it. There are a few sequences of it, such as when a specific driver in Abel's employment is beaten and robbed of the company vehicle. Otherwise, this is primarily a character study, and this supposed "violence" actually comes from the internal struggle and the imminent danger that a particular immigrant faces when pursuing the American Dream. He claims to want nothing more than to run an honest business, but such ongoings force him to exercise power that he continues to deny having access to. There's clearly another side of Abel that we very occasionally get the chance to see, as he continues to repress this nature, even despite his wife's persistent nudging to flex his power. Chandor's screenplay consistently builds upon itself, as Abel becomes unwound. The life that Abel and Anna pursue is absolutely intriguing, as even the audience is unaware of what they're capable of. This makes for an unpredictable couple of roles that truly make for something interesting. It's clear that this filmmaker has a firm understanding of the characters, as well as what their motivations are. He doesn't ever feel the need to spoon-feed any of this, as the film remains quite subtle throughout its duration.

Not only is the audience unaware of what Abel and Anna might do in order to protect their interests, but the same can be said about the thieves who threaten this married couple's livelihood. We see their faces, but we have no way of knowing exactly who they work for. We're just as disoriented about the matter as Abel is, as the viewer attempts to put the puzzle together themselves. This is certainly an effective way of delivering a crime drama that wishes to instill a sense of mystery. It keeps the audience invested in the ongoings, except once reveals are made, the story stumbles a bit. The third act should be the most intense portion of the picture, although it ultimately ends up containing the root of the film's issues. This is when Chandor explores some rather repetitive motions that really pull us out of Abel and Anna's story, as they try to remain at the top of the empire that they have worked so hard to achieve. The real moment when everything comes to a head isn't actually found within the plot, but the explosion of emotion that occurs between this husband and wife. When their relationship is addressed, we're suddenly pulled right back into this character study, although it feels a tad too late.

A Most Violent Year definitely may be considered too subtle for some, but others will greatly admire it for its approach. If you're looking for the dramatically intense film that the trailer portrays, then you might be taken aback by its slow-burn methods. It's handled marvelously throughout the first two acts, although the third act truly hinders the overall effect that had been created previously. Nevertheless, the themes of power and the American Dream most certainly aid the picture to the finish line. By the time the credits are done rolling, it doesn't really provide the closure that was desired. Rather, it still feels like there's a lot left to be said that Chandor simply didn't include on the surface. Perhaps this is one that will grow with a second viewing, as one would be more likely to pick up on more of the subtle character details. However, as it stands with a single viewing, the story didn't leave me entirely satisfied of where this could have gone. This just feels like one chapter in the story that is really taking place here.

The real show-stopping element of A Most Violent Year is the acting from its two lead performances. Oscar Isaac is tremendous as Abel Morales. He manages to touch upon the most subtle of elements found within this immigrant, who continues to fight to achieve the American Dream. Isaac is ice cold when he must be, but also delivers quite a bit of humanity to this man. Jessica Chastain is brilliant in the role of Anna Morales. This is a different personality for Chastain, and she manages to display complete mastery. Not only is she absolutely convincing, but she shows that there's more underneath the surface that we aren't entirely aware of. Anna is unpredictable, and Chastain successfully places a sense of doubt within the audience. When Isaac and Chastain are on screen together, it's magic. The chemistry is transfixing, especially as everything they've ever known begins to fall into shambles. Once the credits start rolling, you'll hope that more films will bring these two stars together.

Writer/director J.C. Chandor has delivered something truly dark and unnerving here with impactful messages of the American Dream and the hunger for power. With award-worthy performances from Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain, this is an immersive piece of filmmaking, for the most part. Unfortunately, this doesn't hold true for the picture's entire duration, as the third act stumbles to the finish line. It becomes a tad repetitive, and it doesn't pack the punch that audiences will be expecting. Most of the action occurs underneath the surface, making it worth a second viewing. It remains to be have a taut sense of storytelling that makes it worth checking out. While rather engaging, it simply didn't get under my skin the same way Chandor's previous pictures have. A Most Violent Year is a subtle crime thriller that doesn't deliver quite as much of an impact as it should. Nevertheless, it comes recommended.

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