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Review: A Most Violent Year (2014)

A Most Violent Year (2014)

Directed by: J.C. Chandor

Premise: Set in New York in 1981, the ambitious owner of an oil and gas company finds that his family is the target of violent resistance from his competitors. At the same time his business comes under investigation by the authorities.

What Works: Gangster movies generally have a capitalistic component to them. For example, The Godfather is about the passage of the family business from one generation to the next, Scarface is about immigration and the American Dream, and American Gangster is about the disparity between that dream and the realities of the ghetto. A Most Violent Year is not technically a gangster film but rather a capitalist movie with a gangster component. The way in which the movie flips these elements is cleverly done and it sheds new light on the ways we think about business and crime. A Most Violent Year is about an ambitious business owner who is on the cusp of a major expansion and he attempts to do it right or at least within some loosely defined parameters of right and wrong. The lead character walks the line between legitimate businessman and criminal thug and the distinction becomes thinner as the movie goes on, forcing the entrepreneur to make increasingly difficult decisions. That is one of the admirable qualities of this film. In a lot of American movies, characters resort to violence with a shrug and cinematic violence rarely results in repercussions for its characters. In A Most Violent Year, the violent option is always on the table but the characters must resist reaching for it in order to preserve their integrity. This film was written and directed by J.C. Chandor, who had previously made Margin Call and just as that film was able to provide some nuance in its portrayal of people at an investment bank on the cusp of the 2008 Wall Street meltdown, A Most Violent Year is able to take gangster-like characters and portray them empathetically. Chandor creates sophisticated characters who face complex problems and the actors deliver on what’s provided to them in the script. The film is led by Oscar Isaac as the business owner and Isaac is an intense presence. Channeling Al Pacino’s performance in The Godfather, Isaac’s character is tough but the actor imbues him with a sense of honor and integrity and as his situation becomes increasingly stressful, Isaac allows the cracks to show on the edges of the character. Jessica Chastain plays his spouse and rather than being the stereotypical mafia wife, the character is as invested and involved in the family business as her husband. It’s revealed that she came from a rough background and that grit bubbles to the surface throughout the film. 

What Doesn’t: For a movie titled A Most Violent Year the film doesn’t have that much violence in it. That in and of itself is not necessarily a problem since this story is about characters trying to resist the temptation of violence. However, A Most Violent Year is set in New York in 1981, the year in which the city experienced its highest rate of violent crime. The picture operates under the presumption that the background of the story is an extraordinarily violent place but the filmmakers don’t quite capture the atmosphere of that place and time the way films like Taxi Driver and The French Connection did. As a result, the setting of A Most Violent Year is simultaneously specific and generic. The movie also suffers from a lack of momentum. Some scenes in the movie are quite tense but the overall pace of the picture is stop and go and when the movie arrives at its climax the story does not give the impression that it has peaked.

DVD extras: Commentary track, featurettes, interviews, deleted sc3enes, and trailers.

Bottom Line: A Most Violent Year is a very good film, one that presents the audience with characters and situations with nuance and complexity and it tells a tense story of honor, ambition, and integrity.

Episode: #541 (May 10, 2015)