WHAT I LIKED: J.C. Chandor's 'A Most Violent Year,' is about an up and coming New York oil tycoon obsessed with getting his company off the ground despite financial, legal and even violent challenges from his opponents and the authorities. That may sound decidedly dull, but it's actually an extremy captivating film from start to finish, and there's one scene in particular that epitomises why that is.
Early on in the film, Abel lectures his young apprentices in a warehouse, and attests - whilst adorned by pristine overcoat and quiff - that "you'll never do anything as hard as looking someone in the eye and telling them the truth." As he does so and Chandor lingers intently on his face for literal minutes, we get the chance to notice how much he's avoiding looking the camera in its eye himself, and how Isaacs seems to almost be playing a role within a role. Is this all about appearances, or is his integrity somehow genuine?
This is a film that brilliantly keeps you guessing all the time, as the reveals are made tentitively and objectively, and virtually nothing ever seems certain. There's a constant battle for the audience to work out whether Abel is really as obsessed with doing things legitimately as he constantly makes out, and, even more so, to understand the reason why he's so ambitious in the first place. Then there's the question of his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) who it's hinted has fishy connections that offer countless potential back-ups that Abel almost never takes up despite the financial and legal challenges he faces. The film resolves few of those questions; it just observes the central characters as they are and asks us to draw our own conclusions. Even the plot is delivered in a similar vein, as it takes a good while for the script to reveal who's targetting the company's supply, and a similar length of time to discover what the authorities' charges against him really are about.
That all has the power of keeping you on tenterhooks despite a story that could have easily felt inconsequential. The shots are long and generally made from the middle distance so you get a chance to objectively ponder both the characters' turmoils and the New York environments surrounding them. The central performances are nuanced and committed, and Isaacs in particular lends utter conviction - with just a hint of fraud - to Abel so that you're left questioning him beyond the things he says. Even the atmosphere of the piece is perfectly poised to keep the audience on their toes, as there are many masterfully orchestrated moments of peril and suspense, Alex Ebert's score continually pulsates in the background, whilst even Bradford Young's cinematography perfectly captures the empty bitterness of a New York winter to add to the overall hostility. Ultimately, that means it's arguable that this is more of a mystery movie than anything else, as the primary vehicle that keeps you engaged is the sheer pull of wanting to figure out what's going to happen, and, most of all, what really drives Abel underneath the appearances.
The one crucial thing about a good mystery is of course that it needs a good pay-off, and luckily 'A Most Violent Year,' has that as well. As the stakes continually raise and Abel's opponents up their antis, a young employee reminds him of himself years ago and effectively serves to hold up a mirror to his reasoning and ultimate success. Abel, seemingly like every other blind secondary soul in the film, was just pursuing the American dream. For some, that works out, and for others - even those in almost identical situations - it just doesn't. The way this film concludes its various side characters' journeys seems to make the point that it's impossible to be true and by-the-books all the time. If you're going to make it, you have to break the rules, and there are always going to be victims along the way. That inadvertantly says everything we need to know about Abel himself, and it's a perfect thematic conclusion and character pay-off to something that will have kept you on the edge of your seat from the beginning.
WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE: Not only are some of the scenes glaringly repetitive in the points they're making, but the lingering camerawork is sometimes uneccessary too as it can feel more like it's showing off the composition and beautiful colours of the shots themselves than the stories they're trying to convey. Also, it's arguable that we never truly get to see Abel open up, so never really get to the bottom of the mystery of his convictions beyond a general thematic point about any true integrity being impossible.
VERDICT: Because its primary source of engagement comes from its slow, objective reveals that keep you forever on tenterhooks, J.C. Chandlor's 'A Most Violent Year,' is basically a mystery film. The fact it concludes on a point about the impurity of the American Dream elevates it even further into a truly brilliant piece of work.