It still stings a bit knowing J.C. Chandor's A Most Violent Year was all but ignored by the Academy last year. After Chandor's win for his screenplay on the equally exemplary Margin Call, it seemed all but expected that the film would nab an award or two. Unfortunately, outside of securing the National Board of Review's distinction as Best Film of the Year, it sailed under the radar. Thankfully, its reputation, blistering performances, and multilayered narrative can be rectified with the fantastic Blu-ray out now.
1981, New York, the "most violent year" in the city's history. Enmeshed within it all is Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), the owner of a heating oil business hoping to make a play for the big time. When his company's trucks are routinely hijacked, Abel must discover the culprit. Unfortunately, events come to a head at the same time his company is set to close a deal on a tract of land, as well as coming under fire for alleged crimes.
Chandor is a writer and director telling stories about things you'd assume would be beyond boring. Who else could craft a trio of movies revolving around an investment banking crisis, a man lost at sea, and a heating-oil business, all of which are multifaceted and utterly compelling? With A Most Violent Year, Chandor illustrates the success, and tragic limitations, of the American Dream. Abel is either a man who's pulled himself up by his bootstraps or conveniently married the boss' daughter, but the entirety of his being consists in doing business the right way. And that means no guns or violence.
His credo puts him at odds with his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), a woman equal parts Lady Macbeth and Hillary Clinton. Anna does what needs to be done and, in many ways, is the brain's behind Abel's entire operation. However, she's a bit too content with falling back on her gangster's-daughter upbringing, brandishing a gun when necessary. Their entire relationship in the film is best summed up as the two try to figure out how to put a deer they've hit with their car out of its misery. As Abel musters up the courage to beat the deer with a tire iron, Anna calmly shoots the deer. Anna's method is merciless, but effective, and renders her cold and calculating to Abel's compassionate brutality bubbling under the surface. All of this is grounded in a time where violence is literally all around the characters, exemplified through snatches of radio announcements reporting random acts of intense violence.
Both Isaac and Chastain are electrifying. Each brings multiple nuances to their characters, with every motivation mapped out in their mind's eye. The audience comes to understand why they are the way they are, and why they're doomed to struggle with their life's choices. This type of deep complexity can only be achieved through actors who can pull it off. Chastain, in particular, boasts a terrifying intensity within her portrayal of Anna. You have no doubt of her love for her husband and family, but she has little sympathy for their presumed weaknesses.
The narrative trajectory is kept tight, despite some lengthy conversations regarding the MacGuffin of who is hijacking the trucks. Much of this sets up the aforementioned discussions regarding the American Dream, and why Abel is able to succeed where his employees fail. That isn't to say Chandor stalls the plot entirely; a high-speed chase between Abel and the hijackers, culminating with a blind trip through a dark tunnel, will leave you on the edge of your seat. However, these moments aren't necessary to keep the audience engaged. Chandor's script is both a mix of typical gangster conventions and beautiful aphorisms spoken from characters who have to give it their all to keep the devil at bay.
The Blu-ray is packed with a slew of bonus content to go along with the phenomenal film. The picture quality is standard Blu-ray quality, but if you have even the slightest issue hearing dialogue you'll be riding the volume control to hear the hushed dialogue before the blasts of action force you to turn it down. The bonus content itself includes a highly informative audio commentary from director Chandor and two of the film's producers. They cover all the basics, such as the film's historical context, casting the stars, etc. Isaac and Chastain are heavily featured in a series of brief "conversations," discussing their shared history together. There's also a 45-minute featurette, appropriately titled "Behind the Violence," that's a must for those interested in the film's historical authenticity. There's also deleted scenes, an additional conversation with Chandor, and a few other mini-features.
J.C. Chandor continues to excel as a director, and A Most Violent Year is probably his grandest film to date. Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain are nothing short of brilliant. If you missed this in theaters, go watch it now. And if you saw it in theaters, be sure to buy the movie on DVD or Blu-ray.