A Most Violent Year Review
The third feature of director J.C. Chandor, A Most Violent Year tells the story of an ambitious businessman (played by Oscar Isaac) struggling to land a major deal amid the looming threat of a criminal investigation and rivals who'd love nothing more than to ruin him. It's a big, dramatic story set against the backdrop of early 1980s New York City that nonetheless maintains a remarkably even pulse. There's little flash here. The film has a meaty narrative which is then expressed with an intellectual steadiness. In that particular regard it's consistent with the growing body of work of Chandor, who turned very tense situations in both Margin Call and All Is Lost into measured struggles of human endurance.
Isaac, so good in the Coens' Inside Llewyn Davis, here portrays Abel Morales, head of a heating oil delivery company that's simultaneously being investigated by a hard-charging assistant district attorney (David Oyelowo) and having its tanker trucks mysteriously hijacked and stolen. Meanwhile Morales desperately wants to expand his business and, with the help of his attorney (Albert Brooks), purchase a large area of land near the East River which would greatly support such growth. The major obstacles are finding a way to obtain the necessary funds and doing so as the negative attention from the D.A.'s pursuit creates a far greater perception of risk to potential creditors.
Throughout this ordeal, the viewer (at least this one) expects evidence of corruption or other wrongdoing to creep into the equation for Morales, as we've seen in numerous other pieces of cinema or television. Chandor, here acting also as sole credited writer, generally avoids playing into that cliched trap. Any perception of Abel in this light is owed more to what's been previously seen on other screens and, perhaps, the stiff fullness of his hair than what Chandor shows. Indeed, for a movie with the word "violent" right there in its title there are remarkably few instances of actual menace or bloodshed. Instead, the violence in question feels much more of the bitter, emotional sort than anything that would offer up a heavy body count. And quite likely at the forefront of that particular inquiry is Jessica Chastain's character Anna, the unclean wife of Abel.
The film is careful not to err too heavily in the direction of making Chastain a full-blown Lady Macbeth figure. She's supportive and bold, ultimately making a huge impact on the story, but her character seems consistent throughout. The real question with Anna might be why her husband hadn't recognized the level of determination present earlier. Was there a blind eye turned? How could he not have understood the true nature of his wife? What emerges is an ethical swamp inside which both Anna and Abel coexist. The characters of A Most Violent Year are richly drawn and given a host of dense situations in which they must attempt to maneuver. Reviewers liked to make comparisons to the work of Sidney Lumet when this film was released but Chandor is content to simply simmer throughout, withholding the boiling point. Lumet generally offered up scenes and moments of release in his movies while Chandor remains calm and collected pretty much start to finish.
As such, A Most Violent Year may not be the film you expect it to be but that doesn't necessarily position it as a niche piece or any sort of disappointment. The way Chandor chose to tell this story is uncharacteristic of what's come before it. This is a deeply absorbing character study with a layered plot that nonetheless moves at its own pace. There aren't enough of these in modern cinema. It also features strong performances all around, particularly from Chastain who gets to sink her teeth into a cliche without many of the annoyances usually attached. And perhaps most exciting of all is that Chandor has now cemented himself as a filmmaker whose subjects can be completely unpredictable yet still consistently intelligent and thought-provoking.
A Most Violent Year arrives on Region A (locked) Blu-ray via Lionsgate. The original release comes with a slipcover and Digital HD Ultraviolet code inside the case.
Picture quality here is strong, with the wide 2.40:1 aspect ratio frame looking excellent and tight on BD. Stylistic choices making interiors look extremely dark and a generally jaundiced patina are faithfully reproduced here. Natural lighting is virtually nowhere to be found with this film so moods and complexions are key.
Audio also registers well, with the English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track offering up the expectedly good distribution of dialogue and music. It isn't flashy but what's present is indeed necessarily immersive as just one of several elements that combine to give off the intended feel of a time and place. Subtitles are available in English, Spanish and English for the hearing impaired. They are optional.
Special features on the disc are perhaps more generous than we're typically treated to nowadays. An audio commentary with writer/director J.C. Chandor and producers Neal Dodson and Anna Gerb provides additional insight into the filmmaking process, including lots of talk about various locations used. Beyond that track there are also a collection of featurettes which highlight the making-of and production of the picture.
"Behind the Violence" (44:00) is a two-part comprehensive piece on the film's making.
"A Conversation with Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac" is divided into three separate segments (without the option to play all at once) which run about four minutes each. While the content itself is good, the abundance of clips seem to make up half the already brief running time.
"We Can Cure Violence" (1:31) is a PSA about approaching violence in a different way when trying to prevent it. "The Contagious Nature of Violence: The Origins of A Most Violent Year" (3:10) is a short conversation between J.C. Chandor and Gary Slutkin, who is the founder and executive director of the group Cure Violence.
Five Deleted Scenes (7:44) are included. Also on the disc is the original theatrical trailer (2:28) and teaser trailer (1:23). A neat video piece called "Inner City Crew" (1:20) has Oscar Isaac jogging through a neighborhood as others (crew members?) tag along for the run.
Trailers for other films can also be accessed, including Ex Machina, While We're Young, Cut Bank, and Revenge of the Green Dragons.