My latest cinema trip can be literally described as a battle of the Oscars. The two choices at the top of the list this week were both films starring Oscar Isaac, sci-fi thriller Ex Machina or crime drama A Most Violent Year. Having little previous knowledge of either picture or how they had been initially received, my choice was to be unguided and uninfluenced. Through a combination of my love for Jessica Chastain and a general genre preference between the two options, I settled for the latter of the two and entered the theatre in hope that I had made a worth while choice.
Set in 1981 New York, A Most Violent Year tells the story of Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) and his honest attempts to build a fuel supplying empire without descending in to the gangster lifestyle that has infiltrated the business practices of his many competitors. As a result of these virtuous aspirations, Abel quickly finds that his fuel trucks become the target of easy robberies, and with his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) being the daughter of an infamous mob boss, the threat and temptation of gangster retaliation is forever in the back of the good intentioned business man. The plot proceeds as an exploration of the many different forces and obstacles that Abel has to face in his quest for honest business, including a multiple count investigation by the government and the strong and commanding presence of his wife, a woman who is fast losing patience with his passive attitude to their misfortune and all too ready to call upon the underworld services of her notorious extended family. A Most Violent Year is a fantastic film for many different reasons, the first of which being that it provides a different take on the archetypal gangster crime drama whilst at the same time feeling as authentic and atmospherically correct as some of the very best examples cinematic history has to offer. Seeing a protagonist refusing to descend in to a life of crime rather than relishing in it provides a refreshing and interesting experience, but there is always a captivating thread of threat that makes the film an utterly intriguing watch from start to finish. Abel and Anna Morales are two of the most enigmatic characters I have witnessed for some time, and the scenes of crisp, sharp dialogue that they share together are electric and punctuate the film with moments of understated brilliance that hit my sweet spot with pin point accuracy. What makes the picture particularly delicious is its heavy yet effortless mood. The exceptional cinematography gives the film the authentic look of the eighties without ever looking gimmicky, and the weight and tension of the narrative, rather than creating a fraught experience, actually serves to provide a rather hypnotic and seductive atmosphere that is comparable to the slow paced, gravitas filled works like The Godfather or La Haine. Exulted company indeed, and though admittedly A Most Violent Year is not in the same league as these classics, there is just something sumptuous and smooth about it that draws similar positives.
As alluded to above, Abel and Anna Morales are a brilliant pair of characters, and this is down to a brilliant pair of performances by the films two leading actors. Oscar Isaac is becoming a chameleon like artist with every new film that he makes, with the an audience hardly being able to tell that the man in A Most Violent Year is the very same man across the movie theatre in Ex Machina. As Abel, Isaac oozes charisma and becomes an understated but engaging hero from the off. The dark broodiness in which the actor finds a groove conjures memories of Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone without ever feeling like an impression, and along with this quiet stillness, Isaac perfectly executes the integral vulnerability that Abel as a character is ultimately defined by. Giving an equal and even better performance at times is Jessica Chastain as Anna. Chastain becomes the absolute embodiment of a strong woman as the wife with gangster in her blood, torn between a loyalty to her husband a natural inclination to take the bull by the horns and settle the situation by any means. Everything from Chastain’s body language to her Brooklyn accent are expertly executed and she effortlessly steals every scene of which she is a part. The fact that Meryl Streep’s average turn in Into The Woods has been deemed more impressive supporting work than Chastain’s in this picture is nothing short of scandalous behaviour by the Academy, in my opinion her performance is the best of the awards season including Patricia Arquette’s acclaimed role in Boyhood.
Overall, A Most Violent Year is a sultry, atmospheric crime drama that boasts a genuinely engaging narrative and a couple of the best acting performances you will see all year. For reasons beyond my imagining the film has been completely shunned by the Oscars crowd, but please do not be fooled in to assuming that it is not worth your time. It is slick, stylish and satisfying in all of the best ways. I was engrossed from the very beginning to the very end and Jessica Chastain is sensational. An absolute must see for lovers of intelligent, understated, utterly hypnotic crime drama.