40 years have passed since the release of cinema’s most influential film, The Godfather. In those following decades many lesser films emerged in its shadow begging comparison. Some have even been remarkably close at capturing certain aspects of what made that landmark film an all time classic. J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year rightfully deserves comparison to Coppola’s heralded series. Everything from the casting of Oscar Isaac, who bears a striking resemblance to Pacino circa 1972, to the lighting design that frequently backlights characters to offer ominous silhouettes and shadows, and the central theme of a good man attempting to stay the righteous course on his way to success in America, have been lifted from Puzo and Coppola’s work. Shockingly, A Most Violent Year doesn’t feel like a retread but as if it’s been locked in a time capsule for 35 years and newly discovered, this movie is so good it could serve as companion piece.
It’s 1981 and New York is amidst it’s most deadly year on record. Murder, rape, robbery, and all manner of crime are out of control. Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is the owner of a heating oil company, he is a man who bases his business principles on doing the ‘right’ thing and taking pride in his work. Standard Oil, has grown in such fashion it puts Abel in position to purchase a sizable and highly sought after fuel oil terminal from the long withholding landowner. A forty percent deposit is exchanged and Abel is given three days to come up with the remaining 1.5 million, or forfeit his deposit and lose the property. This doesn’t cause the cocky businessman any worries, the bankers have guaranteed to back him financially in the endeavor, even while Abel’s business is under fire from his mob owned competitors and a pending federal indictment.
Jessica Chastain is Abel’s wife, Anna Morales and a mafia princess in her own birthright. Anna’s ties to the underworld are a constant reminder of Abel’s seemingly relentless struggle to break free from the ‘old’ ways of doing business in the industry. Agent Lawrence (David Oyelowo) is a doggedly determined Assistant District Attorney with aspiration for political office, he sees taking down Standard Oil as his first step on that path. Problems arise when a young truck driver is hijacked and beaten badly, this subplot is the messiest part of an otherwise flawlessly constructed narrative. Mounting violence and pressure from the police cause the bank to back out on approving Abel’s loan, leaving him in a lurch with only a few days to gather the capital or lose everything he’s worked for.
A Most Violent Year has an aggressive title, but it’s really a quietly intense film. This is a movie about serious conversations with heavy undertones that take place in beautifully furnished and darkly lit rooms. Chastain is a revelation here, Same goes for Oscar Isaac, who recalls not only intelligence of Pacino but also the boiled rage of Andy Garcia, I mean this as high praise. This is one of the best movies of 2014.
Director: J.C. Chandor
Stars: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Albert Brooks