J.C. Chandor‘s A Most Violent Year (A24, 12.31), which screened last night at the Dolby on Hollywood Boulevard, is a smartly written, super-gripping, edge-of-your-seat New York melodrama about a driven but principled businessman (Oscar Isaac), married to the tough daughter of a jailed crime boss (Jessica Chastain), who’s struggling to keep his heating-oil business afloat as he deals with truckjacking, an unstable loan situation and possible prosecution for financial impropriety. It’s not some ultra-violent, blood-smeared thing about relentless shoot-outs and punch-outs and squealing tires. The title definitely misleads. But it’ll grab you and then some, especially if you’re over 15 or 16. If you’re semi-educated and over 25 or 30, pig heaven! Especially if you’ve been watching films all your life or…you know, if you’re an HE regular.
Every performance delivers although I wish more scenes and a grander, darker arc had been given to Chastain, who has three or four times the role here that she does in Interstellar, as well as to Albert Brooks, who scores as Isaac’s droll, even-tempered, slightly corrupt attorney. And every scene has been pruned to the bone, and almost every line is note-perfect. A Most Violent Year is not flawless but it’s damn close to that, at least for my money.
Those looking for visceral thrills (and let’s face it — a lot of apes out there are going to see this thing expecting an adrenaline-fueled ride with a lot of blood on the pavement) should know that A Most Violent Year has one of the best car, running-on-foot and subway chase sequences in a dog’s age or maybe decades. It doesn’t quite match the subway-car chase sequence in The French Connection but it definitely belongs in the same ballpark, and that means it’s been shot and cut so that you can actually follow the action. This sequence alone is worth the price, but there’s a lot more to savor and sink into.
And the sound mix! I realized last night that I’ve been more traumatized by Interstellar‘s soupy sound than I knew because as the lights went down I muttered to myself, “Please, God…don’t make this as murky and bassy and hard to fucking understand as Interstellar. I just want to hear the dialogue…please.” And I did! Every word, phrase and sentence was clear and crisp. I didn’t miss a damn thing.
Except I couldn’t and still can’t figure out the title. It derives from the fact that Chandor, who wrote the script as well as directed, has set the story in 1981, known to have been the worst year for rapes and murders in the five boroughs of New York City. Violence certainly happens from time to time but why J.C. decided to call it A Most Violent Year is…well, I don’t get it. It’s about a highly disciplined, super-determined guy trying very hard to solve his problems with honor and smarts and without resorting to violence or allowing his employees to do the same. It’s about clannish groups and predatory behavior and laws and bank loans and oil storage tanks and the whims of prosecutors. It’s an urban-jungle story in which violence only punctuates the story like periods and commas punctuate a typical paragraph.
But it’s the real thing, man. It really, really delivers if you understand the value of “real,” which, I realize, is not what it used to be.
I must say that I got the sense in speaking to a bunch of people at the after-party (including the legendary Joel Coen, who starts work on Hail Caesar! on Monday) that Chandor’s film had registered somewhere between 7.5 and 8. They liked it but with a reservation or two. I regard as it as solid 8.5 if not a 9 — easily Chandor’s best. Others feel this way also. TheWrap‘s Alonso Duralde has given it a full-hearted rave.
If you didn’t know it after Margin Call and All Is Lost, you’ll damn sure know it after seeing A Most Violent Year: Chandor makes carefully shaded, super-smart, highly engrossing films that always feel rooted and atmospheric and steeped in the exact same stuff that sometimes makes your life (or mine or your son’s or neighbor’s) seem dicey or anxious or worse. Chandor is a first-rate, can-do situationalist (his next film is Deepwater Horizon, a disaster flick about the BP oil spill) and, right now and for my money, the best guy working in that all-but-faded staple — the serious, non-quirky, non-high concept, middle-budget drama with name-brand actors that’s aimed at mature types.
And yet so far Chandor’s films haven’t exhibited a strong personal signature. Maybe they never will. Maybe they’ll just stick to being damn good and leave it at that. So okay, Chandor is not Howard Hawks, Francois Truffaut, Stanley Kubrick or Sam Peckinpah (or not yet) but he’s not a journeyman either. Maybe he’s some kind of chameleon but he seems incapable of mediocrity. He’s about as far as you can get from the Quentin Tarantino School of Swaggering, Look-At-Me Bullshit as you can get, and that’s a glorious thing in my book. Right now and for the foreseeable future (i.e., until he fucks up) “directed by J.C. Chandor” is a can’t-lose proposition.
In this, one of the finest, most unpretentious and plain-dealing New York melodramas you’ve ever seen or will see, Chandor (as I sensed a few months back) seems to be channelling the ghost of Sidney Lumet, and particularly the New York culture savant who made Prince of the City, Serpico, Find Me Guilty, The Pawnbroker, Q & A, Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead and 12 Angry Men — the grit, aroma, skew and patois of it all. What a feast those films were, and here’s another to join their company.
I’ve noted before that A Most Violent Year doesn’t feel particularly baity or derby-ish because a 1980s Sidney Lumet crime film doesn’t massage the standards of the softies who want love, comfort and close-to-home reflections about children and family and triumphing over tragedy or adversity, etc. It’s very much a Queens period piece, and is so dyed-in-the-wool New Yorky that it doesn’t particularly speak to our 21st Century zeitgeist. But it’s absolutely one of my personal Top Ten films of the year, and I don-t care how good The Gambler or American Sniper turn out to be. I love films like this. No pretensions, nothing fussy, acted to the nines, cut with an Exacto knife.
How delighted and satisfied was I by A Most Violent Year? Well, I’m seeing it again tonight in a small talent-agency screening room. Okay?
Oscar Isaac delivers like a champ but I didn’t like his Abel Morales character as much as I did Chastain’s Anna, who’s one tough, mostly unprincipled mama and definitely her father’s daughter. The basic shot is that Abel wants to play it semi-honorably and by the above-board rules, but we can sense right away that this won’t get it — that he’s going to have to come up with some kind of hardball strategy to get himself out of trouble. Anna knows this right away while Abel takes a while to face up.
A pat on the back for costars Alessandro Nivola, David Oyelowo, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Ashley Williams, Elyes Gabel, Harris Yulin (whom I don’t even remember seeing in this thing), Giselle Eisenberg and Elizabeth Marvel. And cheers to cinematographer Bradford Young (Middle of Nowhere, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) and editor Ron Patane.