Film Review: “A Most Violent Year” — A Most Masterful Accomplishment

A Most Violent Year is nothing if not intense.

A Most Violent Year, directed by J. C. Chandor. At Coolidge Corner Theater, Brookline, MA and other screens around New England.

"A Most Violent Year"

Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain in “A Most Violent Year”

By Paul Dervis

I lived in New York in the early 1980’s and I can tell you that A Most Violent Year could have been filmed in that city when I lived there. It pays that kind of meticulous attention to detail. The vision of urban decay is striking from the opening scene, only to be interrupted by the occasional image of decadent opulence as the principle characters try to rise above the muck and land on top of the massive dung heap.

It is a fascinating film.

Think Serpico or Dog Day Afternoon. A Most Violent Year is infused with the harshness that so vividly marked those films. To take the comparison further, actor Oscar Isaac (as Abel Morales) exudes the same dynamic energy as Al Pacino. This movie will be a turning point in Isaac’s career. Until a couple of years ago he was, more often than not, a minor or supporting actor in films such as Robin Hood and The Bourne Legacy. Then he landed the title role in the sleeper Inside Llewyn Davis and his roles have expanded and improved. A Most Violent Year is Isaac’s coming out party. He drives this film with power, grit, and intensity.


This film is nothing if not intense. It layers one pivotal conflict on top of another, on top of another. This is the most dramatic week in Morales’s life. He is an immigrant looking to score the American Dream in the dilapidated back streets of the blue-collar boroughs of New York. Morales is the owner of a smallish oil delivery business, but he’s about to make his move to take control of the industry by buying an empty storage facility that is on the East River. That move will make his shipments come in larger and cheaper. The facility is owned by Hasidic Jews who like his honesty and candor. They give him a week to come up with the cash or he’ll lose his down payment. It’s all or nothing for Morales. If he can close the deal he will control the territory. If not, he may well lose the business.

At the same time, he’s being investigated by a district attorney (David Oyelowo of Selma) who is trying to make a name for himself by exposing corruption in the oil delivery industry. As police start rifling through the company’s books, the D.A. tells Morales that an indictment is only days away.

Oh, and the company’s bookkeeper is Morales’s wife (played with strength and panache by Jessica Chastain), the daughter of a Mob Kingpin. Are the books legit? Well, they’ve met industry standards, but then again, Morales knows just what the industry standards are. Let’s just say a thumb is often on the scale when the oil is being weighed.

But Morales’s biggest (or at least most pressing) issue is that his drivers are being beaten up and robbed of their trucks by someone, most likely a competitor. As if the violent threats against his employees and the massive loss of revenue weren’t enough, the teamsters want to illegally arm Morales’s drivers in the midst of the city’s investigation of his company.

And, with three days to go before his 30 days is up on his option for the desired facility, his bank gets cold feet and backs out. He must raise the cash or lose everything. And, although he is trying to stay legitimate, Morales certainly knows a lot of shady characters that can help him out.

The tension in this film goes wire to wire. Director J. C. Chandor, in only his third feature film, knows his way around a thriller. His first film, Margin Call, was about workers in an investment bank dealing with a financial crisis; his other movie, All Is Lost, is about a sailor trying to survive a collision at sea. For a young director, he commands a formidable amount of visual and narrative intelligence. For example, Chastain’s wardrobe was completely supplied by Armani from their 1981 stock and her hair style could not be confused with any other era. Isaac wore a camel hair overcoat that I think I still have in the back of my closet from my Manhattan days.

The amount of explicit violence in this film would flit by in a fifteen-second sequence in any Sam Peckinpah film. It is the threat of brutality that A Most Violent Year so ably conveys.

And it is masterfully done.

Paul Dervis has been teaching drama in Canada at Algonquin College as well as the theatre conservatory Ottawa School of Speech & Drama for the past 15 years. Previously he ran theatre companies in Boston, New York, and Montreal. He has directed over 150 stage productions, receiving two dozen awards for his work. Paul has also directed six films, the most recent being 2011’s The Righteous Tithe.

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