After making a name for himself with a small but impressive collection of films, writer and director J.C. Chandor promises something truly special with ‘A Most Violent Year’. Having assembled an impressive cast at the height of their powers and placing them within a complex crime story set in New York in 1981, the film has everything in place to offer the kind of dense storytelling and characterisation of such classics as ‘The Godfather’, ‘Chinatown’ and ‘Touch of Evil’. But even with everything firmly in place, does ‘A Most Violent Year’ ultimately satisfy the anticipation?
An underground war is being waged in New York between rival heating oil companies, all attempting to outsell and bankrupt their competition. Heading one such company, and attempting to do so with an air of legitimacy, is Abel Morales (Oscar Isaacs), who runs the business with his clever and abrasive wife Anna (Jessica Chastain). Abel’s plans to build his company further are put in jeopardy when his trucks and salesmen become targets for violent attacks, and the district attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowa) launches an investigation against him. Pushed into a corner, Abel has to keep his head clear and his temper controlled as everything he has worked for threatens to topple around him.
There’s no question that ‘A Most Violent Year’ is an accomplished piece of filmmaking, beautifully shot by Bradford Young, who turns the outer suburbs of New York into a kind of industrial jungle. Chandor exerts a firm directorial grip over the film, pitching a perfect tone and crafting a genuinely intriguing screenplay. Much like ‘Chinatown’, this film somehow finds great dramatic potential in the most unlikely of industries. To these men and women, heating oil is as precious as gold, a commodity worth protecting and acquiring by any means. By all accounts, Abel stands on the outside, a man trying desperately to remain clean in an industry plagued with corruption, as much to protect his honour as well as his family. But this is a film called ‘A Most Violent Year’, and Chandor drags his protagonist deep into the dark forest to battle his monsters. It’s a densely plotted film, filled with great scenes of verbal sparring, but for some reason the cumulative effect is a tad underwhelming. It may come down to the unrelenting tone or the carefully slow rhythm, but it’s unclear what exactly the film is trying to say.
It's a technical master class, not just in terms of its filmmaking, but in the impressive performances from Oscar Isaccs and Jessica Chastain. Isaacs somehow manages to be intensely physical without moving a muscle, and Abel is a character well suited to his talents. Chastain however, though still superb, feels criminally underused, especially when Anna is such an intriguing character. Much like the intention of the film, her place in it is never made clear outside of the standard Lady Macbeth-style trope. What bungles ‘A Most Violent Year’ is that, regardless of the strength of its moving parts, the machine itself isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
That isn’t to say ‘A Most Violent Year’ isn’t worth the time and effort. Isaacs and Chastain are still mighty actors, and Chandor’s rich material gives them a lot to work with. The film itself keeps your attention fixed as you navigate through its dark twists and turns, and Chandor is still proving himself a remarkable talent to keep an eye on. It’s just a pity, given everything it has going for it, that ‘A Most Violent Year’ never quite reaches the lofty heights it promises to.
PICTURE & SOUND
Roadshow have given ‘A Most Violent Year’ a rich and distinctive 1080p 2.40:1 transfer. The film itself was colour-graded into almost sickening tones of yellows and browns, and the colours look very striking in high definition. Detail and clarity is a tad soft, but not distractingly so, and the contrast in a lot of the colours is quite high, enhancing the uncomfortable visual look of the film. The brooding DTS-HD MA 5.1 likewise shows off the detail in the sound design, with a surprising amount of force when working with the score. It’s a carefully balanced and subdued track, a perfect complement to the strength of the video transfer.
Isaacs and Chastain are still mighty actors, and Chandor’s rich material gives them a lot to work with.
The Australian release carries over most (though not quite all) the features on the U.S. disc. Chief among them is the fantastic making-of ‘Behind the Violence’ (43:58), which actually gives a really fascinating insight into the development and ideas behind the film. Chandor’s inspiration was the fact that 1981 was the worst year for crime and violence in New York ever recorded, and used this as a starting point for exploring the rot that had set into the American Dream. After watching this feature alone, I felt like I had a much better understanding of ‘A Most Violent Year’, but I do still wish I could have worked this out from the film. There’s also a lot of discussion from all the key players about the look and texture of the film. This is the kind of making-of I wish more films were given.
There’s also a series of short conversations between Oscar Isaacs and Jessica Chastain, who had been at Julliard together, and a chat between Chandor and Gary Slutskin from ‘Cure Violence’ (3:10). The set is rounded off by an excellent commentary from Chandor and his producers, a set of deleted scenes (7:44) and a PSA for ‘We Can Cure Violence’ (1:32). All that’s missing from the U.S. release are another PSA and a series of trailers.