As a filmmaker, JC Chandor is more about substance than style; his films are more about character than anything else. He strikes me as being something of a classicist in the vein of Clint Eastwood, or Sydney Lumet – the latter especially comes to mind when reflecting on A Most Violent Year, a slow-boiling crime drama whose violence is not front and centre, and a film which is more about modulated pace than flash and sizzle. Which is why it’s kind of a tough sell at the outset.
This is a film one can admire and appreciate more than flat-out enjoy. Admire for its craft rather than enjoy for its entertainment value. Which is fine, don’t get me wrong – I’m not one of those kids who needs to be fed on demand and be entertained with every product the culture produces. Not that A Most Violent Year is a downer to the same degree of Jude the Obscure. Far from it. A superb cast (Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo, Albert Brooks) and a throwback narrative that seems perfectly and authentically realised to its setting, it’s a film that makes three very declarative statements: JC Chandor is a first rate film maker and a fine addition to a small list of 21st century auteurs; Jessica Chastain is among modern film’s quintessential MVPs (I have yet to see her not be great on screen); Oscar Isaac could probably do anything given the right material.
Let’s just take a step back. Chandor made his debut with Margin Call, which took the 2008 financial crisis and showed how the whole thing was a castle built on quicksand, where even the key players didn’t have the first clue about how it all came about. All is Lost (2013) was a unique and beautiful piece of work – Robert Redford alone on a yacht that is crippled by a series of freak occurrences (and all of five at most lines of dialogue uttered throughout the film), and now this, his third film. It’s one of those movies you see, and having seen the first two you realise that whenever he makes a film in the future, you’ll be there.
Jessica Chastain. Awesome. Not sure why she didn’t get the Oscar for Zero Dark Thirty, but I didn’t get to vote, so, you know. She did the best work in Interstellar, was great in The Tree of Life. She’s fantastic here, bringing a kind of kitten-with-a-whip presence mixed with the don’t-fuck-with-me gravitas that Edie Falco brought to The Sopranos, or that Robin Wright continues to bring to House of Cards. I mean good lord. Watch that show. Jesus.
Oscar Isaac was in the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, and despite that film’s lacking narrative urgency, you couldn’t take your eyes off him. One of those performances that unfolds and you think, where have they been hiding this dude? In A Most Violent Year, he exudes a kind of charisma and screen presence like you’d have found in the early screen credits of Al Pacino, and lest he become a hysterical parody of himself in his dotage, great things await Oscar Isaac. Aside from the fact that he’s in The Force Awakens, which opens in December and I can’t wait, fer chrissakes.
So it’s a first rate piece of work. What it lacks in propulsive urgency (and there’s nothing wrong with not being a thrill ride of a movie, I’m looking forward to Avengers: Age of Ultron, which ought to scratch that itch), it more than makes up for in craft and intent. It’s a first rate piece of film making.