1981 was statistically the most dangerous year in New York city’s history, it is the backdrop of one of my most anticipated films this year. A MOST VIOLENT YEAR is a grounded crime drama set during the winter of 1981. From writer/director J.C. Chandor comes this gripping story which brings the viewer into a terrifying maze of rivalries, unprovoked attacks, and oil industry and political corruption while following one immigrants search for the American dream.
Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), a Latin American immigrant seems to have it all, a successful oil company, a brand new fancy home and a beautiful wife and family. He may have bought the business from his wife’s gangster father but he has vowed to run a legitimate business even after discovering the ladder to success is an extremely crooked one. Abel and his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) do almost everything together at home and at work, she controls the books to the company and he makes all the business deals. The two come from very different worlds and you see that come out as the pressure closes in on them.
The story takes place over three days, Morales puts down a deposit on a plot of land in Brooklyn, just across the river of lower Manhattan, that will allow him to grow his business substantially and gain a foothold over his competitors. Tension rises and soon Abel finds his small fleet of drivers under attack literally, thugs are beating up drivers and stealing the trucks to sell the oil that is inside them. As if he needs any more trouble, an overly ambitious ADA (David Oyelowo) begins an investigation into the company’s accounting practices. Hour by hour it seems like Abel’s life and dream are slowly being torn apart, when he finds himself unable to pay the remaining balance on the land.
One thing that J.C. Chandor does well is the world of high stakes thrillers that are built on meltdowns whether financial, personal, professional or moral as seen in MARGIN CALL and ALL IS LOST. Chandor has once again proven his skill as a director by giving us a slow burning thriller that has you biting your nails till the very last moment of the film. Beyond the scenery and performances Chandor uses tools to show the viewer just how scary and violent the times were without actually showing most of the violence, like the radio, you hear it in the background of many scenes in the movie and each time it is describing violence whether it is police getting shot at or women being raped by a masked man it is an eerie reminder of just how dangerous the streets of New York have become. There are chase scenes that are less action packed and instead filled with raw emotion.
Coming off his success in INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, Oscar Isaac shines as Abel Morales, you can feel his pain, he has the ability to make you feel every emotion he is having in this film. For Morales these three days have to be the longest and hardest days you can imagine, you feel the anguish and the pain but more importantly you feel his pride. Not only does Isaac show you the many sides of Morales but you are at some points given a glimpse into that man he has the potential to become. Isaac has the pride part down but it is the moments when he says nothing at all and gives that look and you think, he may have pride but he also has the potential to become as morally corrupt as everyone he is trying to prove wrong. You find yourself rooting for him, hoping and praying that he can just figure out a way to buy this land, get his American dream without having to sell his soul. Abel is at war with so many things, his competitors, the ADA, the police and most importantly himself constantly fighting becoming a gangster. You can see it eating away at him in every moment he is on-screen and is almost uncomfortable to watch.
Jessica Chastain takes on Anna, the Brooklyn-bred daughter of a gangster and while her acting is as always superb she lacked the NY accent a gangsters daughter would most certainly have. The entire time I watched her on screen all I saw was Sharon Stone in Casino and I am still on the fence on whether that is a good or bad thing. Anna is in a constant power struggle, she wants her husband to be the boss being use to her gangster father, but doesn’t really allow him to take the time to step up and be that man, she instead steps in and takes over. Her moral code is drastically different, she is like her husband unafraid but she is also ruthless and cunning.
All in all A MOST VIOLENT YEAR is no doubt one of the most compelling films I have seen this year. While it may be about the most violent year in New York city it is not a violent film in fact only a small amount of bloodshed, it is instead a high stakes character driven story that has you holding your breath waiting for the outcome. Oscar Isaac shines as Abel and J.C. Chandor takes us on a bold journey into raw instinct, into the land of the grey area, where we are most vulnerable and will have even you questioning your own morality by the end of the film. He has given us a gangster story without a real gangster, a raw, dense and emotional body of work that is just breathtaking.
A MOST VIOLENT YEAR opens in theatres everywhere on December 31, 1014.