Review: A Most Violent Year – Thrilling slow-burner ratchets up the tension

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OSCAR Isaac and Jessica Chastain, in their own respects, are at the head of the new vanguard of quality Hollywood actors. The former is chameleonic, inhabiting disparate parts in wildly diverse films; the latter has held her own opposite Ralph Fiennes and Al Pacino. To have the two star in the same film is a real treat – that the film in question is A Most Violent Year is just the icing on the cake.

Directed, written and produced by J.C. Chandor – the man behind Margin Call and 2013’s acclaimed All is LostA Most Violent Year is a haughty throwback to the 70s epoch of Francis Ford Coppola and the New Hollywood. Though indebted to films like The Godfather, Dog Day Afternoon and Taxi Driver, Chandor’s work retains its own distinctly modern atmosphere, despite taking place entirely in the film’s titular annus horribilis: 1981 – one of the most violent (geddit?) in New York’s history.

Isaac is Abel Morales, the owner of a leading heating oil company. While his competitors evade taxes, fix prices and ruffle each other’s feathers, Morales sticks to his ethical principles. When his drivers are assaulted on the job, his wife Anna (Chastain), daughter of a mob boss, pressures him to fight fire with fire. With Assistant District Attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo) breathing down his neck and a vital, company-saving deal to close, Morales has to reconcile his beliefs with the realisation that he might need to abandon them in order to survive.

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The film is told largely – almost exclusively – from Morales’ point of view; through his eyes, we are subject to a morass of moral ambiguity and ethical conflict. Morales’ (and Chandor’s) 1981 New York is a cold, snow-flecked boiler room waiting to fly off the handle. What little sunlight there is has been filtered through, apparently, the same lens that David Fincher used for Gone Girl, sucking all the warmth out of the picture. In a lesser film this might have left us emotionally detached, unable to truly dive into the murky heart of the Big Apple, but Chandor pulls us back in every time.

Isaac is essential to this sense of human connection. Though he largely plays Morales as a high-powered, unflappable businessman, he radiates an aura of camaraderie. When rallying his truckers to face the work day – knowing that they are in danger of assault or worse – there is no question of his standing. He’s the boss, he cares, but that’s only half of what makes him such a fascinating character.

The other half encompasses several scenes wherein Isaac channels the glacial calm of Pacino’s own Michael Corleone: The kind of placid serenity that masks a monstrous fury. With his slicked back hair, crisp suits and shaven face, he even looks an awful lot like Pacino in his heyday. In Morales’ case this fury might well be justified, but Isaac and Chandor ratchet up the tension so precisely that we fear what might happen if (or when) Morales finally loses his saintly cool.

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Chastain, for her money, is a perfect supporting player. Though the film is undeniably centred on Morales, Chastain’s Anna provides an aggressive, self-assured counterbalance. Insistent and ever-certain, she is the perfect foil for Morales’ own shakiness in the efficacy of his beliefs – the chemistry between the two is electric. They share the most ferocious scenes when shit hits the fan; it’s a joy to watch.

Just as much of a delight is Chandor’s navigation of an intricate plot chock-full of double-crosses, company mergers and conflicting motivations. His control of tone and tension, from slow-boil to chase sequence, is beautiful at times – so beautiful, in fact, you may not even realise it’s happening. His script is equally sharp and, happily, assumes the audience aren’t idiots, avoiding expositional dumps for some of the more obscure practices and contextually-pertinent moments.

Though some audiences may find it frustratingly slow in its approach, A Most Violent Year is a thriller in the conventional sense – tense, pitched and exciting, made by a man who knows exactly what he’s doing with a cast who bring their A-game. Unfairly overlooked at the Oscars, it’s a film with a New Hollywood feel in a modern environment without a hint of indulgence. That might well be the most exciting fact of all.

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