Movie Review: A Most Violent Year

I was going to save this review for Thursday, but I felt I needed to spread the word about this movie. If there is a theater that screens independent films, I highly recommend you skip this review, and go see A Most Violent Year. I was lucky to find out this was even playing in my area because my usual theater ignores indies. If you are in the north Orlando area, the Enzian was a great venue to see this film:

* * *

            All movies can stand on their own, regardless if they belong in a series or an anthology. The best ones transcend monotony and become something more than they are. But when comes to films about the Mafia and gangsters, they will always be compared to the greats. Godfather parts 1 and 2 set the standard for Scarface, Goodfellas, Casino, The Departed, and each of those gradually improved upon the potential of what a gangster movie can be.

For a new release like A Most Violent Year, I am going to allow some unbiased into my critique before it is judged on what came before. How does it stack up to the likes of Coppola and Scorsese?

From the start of the film, it is very obvious director JC Chandor knew what he was up against. He went so far as to write and shoot Violent Year in a way reminiscent of the era where most classic gangster films originate. It shares many similarities to Godfather, including an amber filter that makes the whole film look as though it were shot in the 70s. Oscar Isaac, the lead in role of Abel, even looks like a young Al Pacino. It was refreshing to see a film directed in such an anachronistic way.

The story is almost Shakespearean in its theme of tragedy and loss of character, in the context of 1981 New York City, and a mild noir atmosphere. Abel, the owner of a heating oil company, struggles to maintain his honor and legitimacy in a time when the only way to success was to be a gangster. Tensions rise when his oil trucks are hijacked, while he tries to raise money for an important business deal, in the middle of a pending indictment by the District Attorney. His wife Anna, played by Jessica Chastain, tempts him with alternative solutions to his woes that would no doubt lead to criminality.

As I alluded to before, the direction is very good. Though not unique, it is unique in this time and place. It is hard to find movies that are so clearly shot, with a steady camera, and long takes that work on par with the talent on screen. I love old movies and if you do too, you will find much to appreciate.

Isaac channels Ned Stark in his portrayal of a stubborn businessman, who would like nothing more than to be honorable and right. As the film progresses, you see him struggle between maintaining the path he has always followed or turning to a life of crime that would help his business, but hurt his character.

Chastain is great in the role of a matriarchal character. She brings her signature air of independence, with a good helping of passion and intelligence. Compared to Abel, Anna is a gangster that knows more about achieving quick success than her husband. Her struggle is just as apparent when you see her frustration at Abel’s stubbornness.

The only problem I find is Chastain is a bit too West Coast for a character from New York. It would have helped if she put on some kind of accent to hide the fact she sounds like she is from California. But overall, she captures the essence of a mob wife, that is more believable than people who call themselves mob wives.

There is another issue I find, but I only mention it because other people may want to know about it if they have any intention of buying a ticket. Violent Year is another slow burn with a lot of time taken for both story and character. I will never negatively critique a film based on length, unless the movie is actually terrible because it is long, like Blackhat. I do not and will not have a problem with slow burn films.

A Most Violent Year is a great, simple movie. It can be enjoyed on the direction or the performances alone. It is a sight for sour eyes and a nice close to this dismal month.

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