Jessica Chastain’s riveting Lady Macbeth-like performance as Anna Morales elevates “A Most Violent Year” from a standard mugs and thugs tale into a thought-provoking look at the struggle for power. That struggle gets even more complicated when the lines between good and evil are as faint as a contract killer’s conscience.
Her performance is helped by Oscar Isaac ,who plays her husband, Abel, as a soft-spoken intellectual who would rather use brain than brawn to deal with a problem. His quiet demeanor is a balance to the unbridled energy Chastain brings to the role.
These performances roll out in a tale of greed and corruption set against a Brooklyn waterfront. The title comes from actual statistics that 1981 was the year that the most violent crimes in New York City hit a record high.
The couple are looking for a way to expand their domestic heating fuel business. One solution is to purchase a property, but such a transaction forces Abel to make a deal that is almost impossible to keep. He wants to keep his business legitimate, but the pressure makes illegal options look more and more inviting.
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It doesn’t help that Anna, who comes from a mob family, keeps pressing her husband to take care of matters or she will. Out, damned spot of integrity. Out.
Director/writer J.C. Chandor plays out this story with a quiet composure. Dialogue is more powerful than the action scenes — a shootout on a freeway and a car chase. Those moments depend more on tone and texture than blood and bullets.
The foiled hijacking on a freeway bridge feels more like the patient and composed choreographed approach seen in movies like “Serpico” and “Mean Streets.” At the same time, there’s a fluidity to the gunfights that is almost poetic in tone.
Where this film gets volatile is in the chemistry between Abel and Anna. He’s desperately looking to hang on to his moral core; all she wants is results.
Both seem on the verge of an emotional overflow, him for his pent up anger and her for her controlled rage. You could light New York City for a month on the electricity they create together.
And, they don’t have to carry the load alone. Albert Brooks brings an Eeyore quality to his portrayal of Abel’s attorney, Andrew Walsh. He’s a lawyer who has seen the worst of humanity and it’s taken a toll on his personality.
Also impressive is David Oyelowo as the district attorney who tries to hide his political ambitions behind a legal crusade. He plays the role with just the right amount of strength and foibles to make him a complicated character.
“A Most Violent Year” never feels rushed. Chandor sets a tempo that allows Isaac to play his character with control while giving Chastain the time she needs to manipulate behind the throne.
Much of the movie has a cold cinematic look and feel, but that’s in keeping with this world where everyone lives in gray areas. Chandor loves suggesting that good and evil exist in all the characters. What makes them who they are is how they allow those sides to emerge.
And few allow emotions to emerge as well as Chastain.