A Most Violent Year takes place in 1981, but it really suggests the 1970s, as it is a gritty, urban, shadowy film that recalls the work of Coppola, Scorsese, and Lumet (even if it isn’t quite at that level). There are many shots of men in suits standing in parking lots, and I got kind of a shiver remembering the old days.
The film was made by J.C. Chandor, who has, in his three films, showed astonishing breadth, first with the very talky Margin Call, then the dialogue-free All Is Lost, and now this film, which is a brooding story the cut-throat home heating oil business (who knew?) and the dark side of the American dream.
Oscar Isaac, suggesting Al Pacino in his salad days, has built up a company he purchased from his wife’s father. She’s played by Jessica Chastain, who more than channels Lady Macbeth. Isaac’s trucks are being hijacked, the fuel stolen. He suspects competitors. He’s also facing indictment by an ambitious D.A. (David Oyelowo). Oh, and he’s just put a deposit on a large piece of land and has thirty days to close. Tick tock.
Aside from a very well-done chase scene, partly on car and then on foot (which made me think of The French Connection) most of A Most Violent Year isn’t very violent. The violence is mostly in the intense conversations which are reminiscent of meetings of mobsters. There is one, near the end of the film, in which Isaac meets with his competitors, and it was clearly an homage to the scene in The Godfather when Marlon Brando addresses the heads of the Five Families.
At times the pace slows too much and becomes inert. In Isaac’s best acting scene, he instructs his salesmen that to close the deal, one must stare into the eyes of the customer until it feels uncomfortable. In a way, Chandor is doing that, staring into our eyes just a bit too long.
The cast is great. Isaac, after this part and Inside Llewyn Davis, is a must-see for me in anything he does. Chastain is brilliant, as usual, especially when she coughs up a laugh when he tells her that he built the company. Albert Brooks, who now specializes in playing sleazy types, is fine as Isaac’s lawyer, even though he is wearing a ridiculous toupee.
A Most Violent Year is a must for those who long for the good-old days of the ’70s, or who just like an intelligent, well-made crime thriller.
My grade for A Most Violent Year: B+.