A Most Violent Year – Old School Elegant Storytelling

A Most Violent Year2

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.

  • Andrew S

    “we’ve become accustomed and comfortable with great supporting turns by Chastain but isn’t it time she demanded and commanded more screen time?”
    The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby took that gamble – I liked the film but it didn’t do well. Zero Dark Thirty took that gamble and it paid off well. Miss Julie is yet another movie she starred in this year – I’m not even sure if that was released in US but it isn’t on the radar. Anyway, your argument doesn’t really hold water. Perhaps she does better in supporting roles.

  • Film Fatale

    Chastain’s performance in Miss Julie is, in my view, the best performance this year by an actress to-date, and a defining moment for her in an already shining career. While my feelings on the overall film are so-so, her work in the film’s second half — pain, grief, terror, loss — is literally jaw-dropping. Hoarse, crying buckets and writhing around in pain, she has so much authority — there’s a moment where she confronts Colin Farrell in a booming voice, one we’ve never heard from her, summoning a Medea-like rage that would feel large even onstage — and the effect is shattering. She looks, sounds and moves in Miss Julie like she’s not in any movie before. Total transformation.

  • benutty

    I’m hoping A24 and/or AMPAS fraud Chastain into Lead. If they can do it for Winslet….

  • Zach

    Oh, good, I’m not even a huge Chastain fan, but she needs to be nominated this year after all these films. Frankly she can win too. Emma Stone is young, I’m not sure Keira is that good, and I KNOW Arquette wasn’t THAT good. At least with Chastain you can’t go wrong – and I was/still am looking forward to Miss Julie too.

  • http://www.awardsdaily.com Sasha Stone

    I’m hoping A24 and/or AMPAS fraud Chastain into Lead. If they can do it for Winslet….

    She’s not in the film much at all. It’s classic supporting.

  • Bill

    Chastain’s career will never have the trajectory that Streep’s does

    Those days are over

  • Jeff

    Hi Sasha,

    Do you personally think that Chastain would be more deserving of a supporting nomination for either her ‘Interstellar’ or ‘A Most Violent Year’ performance?

    Also, with Chastain technically only able to campaign for her ‘Interstellar’ role until early December, and with Paramount backing that film, do you think that logistically it’s more likely that her ‘Interstellar’ performance will attract AMPAS’ attention or whether they’ll take notice of her ‘AMVY’ performance and nominate that instead?

  • phantom

    Chastain’s status as a Box Office star is highly arguable because most of her films are arthouse fares so clearly we can’t expect her to ‘open’ movies like Eleanor Rigby which won’t be in more than a few hundred theatres at most but on the other hand the two films in her filmography that she did headline and were released nationwide, both opened No1 with 20M+ (Zero Dark Thirty, Mama) which the very least suggests, that were she interested in headlining quality studio films on a regular basis, she may just be able to open them on a regular basis, as well. Worth noting, that both films were low-budget, based on original screenplays (=no luxury of a built-in audience) and released (nationwide) in one of the worst BO months of the year (January).

    I think it is fairly obvious that she is an indie girl at heart and isn’t really after fame and money, if she were, she would make sure films like Iron Man 3, Oblivion, Mission Impossible 5 etc. fit in her schedule – these are roles that were all hers, had she really wanted them – but instead she politely cites scheduling conflicts and goes off to shoot an Eleanor Rigby, a role written specifically for her by Ned Benson OR flies to Jordan to make Zero Dark Thirty OR moves to Ireland for a few months to work with Liv Ullmann OR to Canada to reunite with Guillermo Del Toro.

    She will continue to get exposure from big studio films like Interstellar, Crimson Peak, The Martian and if she accepts the role, Jobs, but all those feel like supporting parts, as well. The next film she will headline and could actually be a big hit is The Zookeeper’s Wife (the account of keepers of the Warsaw Zoo, Jan and Antonina Zabinski, who helped save hundreds of people and animals during the Nazi invasion) that will reunite her with Zero Dark Thirty producer, Megan Ellison.

  • Daniel

    I think if this is indeed a flashy role, she’ll be able to win over Arquette, especially with also having Interstellar (I can see her once again winning critics’ awards for multiple roles and she can win like Meryl did in 1979). I know you love Arquette and she’s indeed amazing, but her role is so subtle and Chastain is more of an “it” girl, even if she has less screentime (although I don’t see how Arquette could be considered leading, the true lead there was the director.

  • Nixxx92

    Sasha do you think Jessica Chastain will have a hard time getting a nomination given that she can’t campaign for AMVY, or is she so good that she doesn’t need to? I read some reviews that say she’s a focal point during the first half but she’s later relegated to full on support so she doesn’t get to shine as bright as she could. I agree w your prospects on her career, she is quite a force & I’ve loved her in every film she’s been in. I’m a huge fan. One more thing do you think it’s a negative that her performance in Interstellar wasn’t “showy” enough because I believe she did sooo much w rather minimal screen time. She broke my heart in the video log scenes & her emotions are so clear and vivid in her eyes during the climax. What do you think her chances are for a nomination in that film?

  • http://screenonscreen.blogspot.co.uk Paddy Mulholland

    Didn’t we hear she was defs going leading in this? Though maybe if she’s definitively supporting, they’ll have a tough time convincing voters that she’s a lead here.

  • Roel

    Quite frankly, Patricia Arquette should be competing for lead. Her role is not supporting. I understand the companies logic, but in a weak Best Actress field, she has a strong chance of a nomination. Therefore, Chastain could run away with a true supporting role Oscar and much deserved one :)

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