One thing that threads throughout JC Chandor’s work, with three films under his belt now, is that he devotes his time to organic filmmaking, the way movies used to be made and sometimes still are in the independent world. He has somehow bypassed the tsunami of showmanship or style over storytelling and takes his cues not from Tarantino and Cronenberg and Lynch but rather from Lumet and Cimino and Pakula. A Most Violent Year feels straight out of the time during which it takes place, the early 80s, and that makes it a bit of a salve for weary film critics who remember the days when movies were really movies and not the endless exploration into the boundaries of visual effects.
Visual effects are cool and all, but there’s something to be said for the need for storytelling – it is a vital human requirement, in fact, so that we can shape our past, present and future without always giving way to fantasy. Some of us go to the movies to be carried away to a different place but some of us go for somber reflection on who we are, what we’ve been through and what we fight for.
A Most Violent Year is about a man holding his business together when it is being threatened by competing thieves. Honestly, it isn’t the most exciting plot – but it isn’t so much the plot that matters. It’s the way Chandor slowly unravels the story, much the way he did in Margin Call, building scene upon scene until it all finally comes together at the end without giving any satisfyingly easy answers.
It is moody, quiet and contemplative, sometimes just letting the sound of breathing fill the frame. There’s a deep sadness to it, as though the main characters really don’t have much to hold onto at all because what they’re holding onto is slipping through their fingers. If Wolf of Wall Street was a story about success, A Most Violent Year is a story about success seeping out of its container. It doesn’t quite become a story of failure but these are not winners here. These are survivors doing what they have to do.
Naturally stealing the show is Jessica Chastain who indeed competes against herself, and frontrunner Patricia Arquette, for Best Supporting Actress. She’s ferocious in A Most Violent Year and that ferociousness becomes a bit of a problem for the film. One yearns to have the story be more about her – but once again, she is supporting. She’s great and no male writer out there is going to point this out because we’ve become accustomed and comfortable with great supporting turns by Chastain but isn’t it time she demanded and commanded more screen time? I think it is. But I’m not the one making movies and making decisions about those movies.
That doesn’t detract necessarily from the film overall, and no one reading this now is even going to notice because Chastain makes the most of her screen time. She is an actress who always makes a decision about where she is in a given scene, who she is and what her objective is. She is far more accomplished and talented than the younger women in the business for whom whole films are built around because they bring in the box office. Chastain isn’t quite there – she isn’t that tweener box office draw or the “it” girl. But she’ll be where Meryl Streep is one day. She will bring people to the movies just to see her in a film.
The versatile and talented Oscar Isaac holds the movie down with his singular performance. It is the polar opposite of his Llewyn Davis – you might not even recognize him as the same actor if you didn’t already know. The supporting cast are fine as well, including Albert Brooks in an understated cameo.
Chandor is such an unpredictable artist – when given the opportunity to write and direct he always takes us somewhere new and he does with deliberation and thoughtfulness. I always feel as though I’m in good hands with him because I know he knows where he’s headed. A Most Violent Year is, as all critics are deeming it, a “slow burn.” It falls in line, in that regard, with Foxcatcher, which is another slow burn of a film. Foxcatcher, though, leaves you with a chill at the end. A Most Violent Year leaves you with melancholy, the same kind of melancholy we’re all feeling a bit as our middle class collapses around us.
I think it’s too early to declare A Most Violent Year’s Oscar prospects, though I expect it will be among the best reviewed films of the year. I think Original Screenplay, Supporting Actress are most assured. Best Actor would be too except for Oscar Isaac is entering the most competitive category at the Oscars – which makes it a tough road.
Depending on what directors think, Chandor could be looking at a Best Director nod as well. We’ll have to wait and see how the film settles with critics awards and early precursors. For now, it goes on the list.