A Most Violent Year (Film Review)

The title of this film serves as an ode to the violence of the 1980s along with the rise of corporations dealing in corruption and deception to make profit. It’s set just when the decade was on the precipice of its descent; when those who owned and sought to build their corporations were forced to corrupt themselves in order to keep their businesses alive and keep their families secure for their future. Writer/Director J.C. Chandor uses this era as the foundation of his film, which is an effective narrative tool that influences and drives the characters of the film forward. This is a typical motif J.C. Chandor has incorporated into each of his films thus far in his career. In his debut film Margin Call (2011), it was the financially floundering investment firm that drove the characters to react, while in All is Lost (2013) it was the emptiness and vastness of the ocean that served as the foundation for Robert Redford’s character to react. Chandor likes to experiment with how one’s environment functions as the influencing component of one’s actions. Crime-driven New York City is the foundation of A Most Violent Year, which allowed for Chandor yet again to construct a form of film narrative that is minimal of any symbolism or deviation of plot, but instead is framed as a snapshot; a episodic encounter with a handful of characters.

A Most Violent Year stars Oscar Isaac as Abel Morales, the owner of a profitable oil company. In his efforts to maintain an honest company, he has found himself in the clutches of various scandals that could topple the empire he is attempting to establish. He and his company are under investigation, and his company’s oil trucks are being continually carjacked. In the process of all of this, his wife (Jessica Chastain) wants him to seek revenge, blood-for-blood, over the injustices he has faced, all the while trying to broker a deal and formulate an investment that could free his company from being financially dependent on others. In the midst of all these issues, the film does take the opportunity to pause the escalation of drama to explore his marriage with his wife, Anna, who functions as the role of wife, adviser and the occasional dark angel he must say no to.

The one element of this film that ought to be commended is the excellent performances from both Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain. While Chandor’s script is smart and is capable of providing an exemplary understanding of the time period, the script needed its actors to truly sell the dialogue to make the film believable. Both Isaac and Chastain go beyond the script and truly become their characters. Oscar Isaac’s performance hinges on the ability of his character to be tempted by corruption, but truly stick by his belief structure. Near the beginning of the film, he engages his employees with a speech that emphasizes that being the best isn’t about acting the role, but being the role. “You have to believe we are better, and we are,” he tells his employees who represent his company, while also maintaining that same mantra throughout the film. Isaac’s performance is calm and collected, but he allows for his character’s body language to be the giveaway of his internalized dilemma and worries. For that, Oscar Isaac ought to be commended.

However, it is Jessica Chastain who is the true scene-stealer of this film. Brandishing an almost flawless Manhattan accent, Chastain is able to convey the level of emotions, and threat of violence, that her husband suppresses throughout the film. She is further able to provide a fantastic shift between being a mother and a wife and also as a public versus private figure. One memorable juxtaposing scene involving her character occurs when her family’s home is about to be searched while she has been hosting a birthday party for her daughter. She speaks with the Assistant District Attorney (David Oyelowo) outside her home and makes a sensitive request to allow her five minutes to collect her guests, allowing them to leave without incident and hurting her own reputation as a neighbor. She does this with careful precision and innocence in her voice, which allows for the Assistant DA to grant her the request. Then, the film immediately cuts to Chastain flustered with her husband as he is desperately hiding boxes of financial records and announces to him that he only has five minutes to do so. In this moment, Chastain shows irritation and a sense of being disrespected, which fits into a range of emotions she exhibits in the span of five minutes within the film. This is one of many moments of excellence from Chastain, who allows for her character to be arrogant in many scenarios, yet she never loses her poise. It also should be mentioned that Chastain’s performance being snubbed at this year’s Oscars in the supporting actress category truly was an oversight that the Academy should be embarrassed about. Chastain provided one of the most compelling, transformative performances of the year and her hard work should have been acknowledged.

One final aspect worth mentioning is that while A Most Violent Year is a well-crafted film, it is also a film that is fundamentally flawed in a unique way. Due to the production and the marketing of this film, it was framed to prospective audiences as being a gritty gangster/crime film. A Most Violent Year fits in neither of those genres because it is simply a gritty drama with the embellishment of crime wrapped around its narrative. The film isn’t overly violent. In fact, with the exception of a single character, all the characters walk out of this film unscathed. What this film does showcase effectively is the rawness and grim reality most had to face in the 1980s when those with minimal power were compelled to sacrifice their ideals. By marketing this film as something other than that, it risks the chance of viewers interpreting the film’s content as being lesser, thus the intelligence of the film is not appreciated. This type of marketing was also done for 1999’s The Insider, which framed the dense drama about “60 Minutes” airing a segment featuring cigarette whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand as, instead, an action film. Viewers may have still appreciated the content, but the marketing depreciated the intelligence the film had to offer. This may have been why A Most Violent Year wasn’t overly successful in theaters despite it being a tremendous film amongst critics. Even the film’s title, A Most Violent Year, depreciates and minimizes the content of the film, which ironically contains excellent direction, transformative performances and gritty writing. This film may ultimately prove to be an under-appreciated gem in the coming years, especially after its snub at this year’s Oscars, but what cannot be ignored is its excellent ability to transport audiences to the early 1980s when one’s morals were truly tested and the American Dream began to shift from being a concept to an overall myth.


Daniel Sirignano, Film writer at Seroword

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  1. While I haven’t seen this yet I’m surprised at your review. So many people said that Jessica Chastain should have gotten a nomination for Best Actress for it and that it was one of the best films of the year. I guess I’ll have to see for myself but I appreciate the review, very honest and well tailored.

  2. I did mention in my review that Jessica Chastain should have been nominated in the supporting actress category, the category she was placed in, for this year’s Oscars. Her not getting the nomination is a disappointment in the nomination process. Nonetheless, her performance is a true highlight in this film.

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