Daily | J.C. Chandor’s A MOST VIOLENT YEAR

'A Most Violent Year'

‘A Most Violent Year’

J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year, set in the violent New York winter of 1981, won’t hit theaters until the very last day of this year, but it’s just opened AFI Fest and the first reviews are in. We begin with Variety‘s Scott Foundas: “If Chandor’s promising 2011 debut, Margin Call, could loosely be described as a Wall Street transposition of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, A Most Violent Year seems to have been steeped overnight in a solution equal parts Sidney Lumet and Lumet’s consummate latter-day reinterpreter, James Gray…. But if A Most Violent Year hits many familiar notes, it does so in an unusually gripping and effective fashion, pulling you deeper and deeper into the struggles of a young heating-company boss trying to make inroads in an industry dominated by generations-old family businesses (which operate rather like a certain other ‘family’ business). None of this is news to [Oscar] Isaac’s Abel Morales, who started out as a lowly truck driver himself, but somewhere along the way fell in love with the boss’ daughter, Anna (Jessica Chastain), and bought the business from him. And while Anna’s dad was all mobbed up, Abel prizes squeaky-clean transparency.”

“Just who is Abel Morales and what function does he serve?” asks the Guardian‘s Xan Brooks. “Many may view him as a noble crusader, others as some silver-tongued chancer who blundered out of his depth. But the truth, perhaps, is more thorny than that. Implicitly, Chandor’s film invites us to regard the oil supplier as the perfect hero for New York’s imperfect early 80s; the ambitious pioneer from a time when the place was in freefall. The following years will see the rise of Wall Street, the deregulation of the banks and the resurgence of Manhattan as a millionaire’s playground. But the first order of business is to get the power back on. So Morales holds his nose, cuts some corners and sends his trucks across the bridge. He provides the fuel for Reagan’s shining city on the hill.”

“Abel has sunk everything into a deposit on a waterfront storage facility,” explains Alonso Duralde at TheWrap. “He’s got one month to pay the balance, and if he doesn’t, he loses both the property and the deposit. Making matters worse is the fact that a rival outfit is hijacking his trucks and stealing their cargo.” What’s more, “Abel’s business has been under investigation for years by hard-nosed district attorney Lawrence (David Oyelowo, Lee Daniels’ The Butler), who seems to be close to putting together a substantial case.” Chastain’s Anna is “ferocious and driven, ready to stand up to anyone or anything who threatens her family or the company’s well-being. We’ve seen this kind of mobster Lady Macbeth before, but Chastain never overdoes it with the snarling or the scenery-chewing. She’s tough and she’s smart and she brooks no outside interference, but she’s also a loving, pragmatic wife, never a mere gorgon.”

“Good as he was in Inside Llewyn Davis last year, Isaac really breaks through with this performance, which… almost uncannily recalls Al Pacino’s simmeringly low-key star-making turns in the Godfather films,” writes the Hollywood Reporter‘s Todd McCarthy. “The roles are, in fact, quite different, as becoming a gangster is what Abel most wants to resist; he is not ruthless and evil at heart, is not emotionally closed-off. But he has an equally high level of self-control and belief in himself, even as his marriage is thrown off balance when crises prove that his wife is much tougher and far less moral than he is.”

“It is a movie about an entire city conspiring to test a marriage,” suggests Drew McWeeney at HitFix. “Bit by bit, this film perfectly tests and twists and turns and tumbles them.” For Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn, taken together, Chandor’s three features “confirm Chandor’s place as one of the most promising American directors to emerge this decade.”

For the New York Times, Lorne Manly profiles Chandor, the “confident 40-year-old filmmaker who less than five years ago came close to giving up on his movie career but next will direct a potential blockbuster starring Mark Wahlberg about the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. A sense of confinement envelops his characters. They’re all facing ticking clocks in what are, essentially, crisis-management movies. More tellingly, his films explore the finding and testing of limits, the drive and ambition that power the American dream, and the moral gray areas that can result.”

Updates: “You underestimate Mr. and Mrs. Morales at your peril—and, for that matter, Isaac and Chastain,” writes the Telegraph‘s Robbie Collin. “As a couple they’re a dramatic dream team, giving Abel and Anna a gorgeous, acidic chemistry that comes from mixing too much business with not enough pleasure. Isaac, with grey streaks through his hair and a slate-coloured double-breasted suit… looks like a permanently suspicious crow, while Chastain, all blood-red lips and fine silk blouses, has the poise of a steel sculpture.”

“Muddled and self-consciously dour, A Most Violent Year is less persuasive when it tries for sweeping social commentary,” finds Tim Grierson, writing for Screen Daily. “But Chandor’s relentless examination of his flailing protagonist, played with great inner fire by Oscar Isaac, gives this insular character study a weary gravity that’s captivating, albeit a bit mannered.”

Updates, 11/9: “Much as jazz is, famously, not just the notes but the arrangement of silences within them, A Most Violent Year isn’t what its plot and dialogue tell you but also what they don’t say out loud,” writes James Rocchi for the Playlist. “The performances stun, from Isaac’s work as Abel to Chastain’s glam, grim Anna; Albert Brooks is a sly delight as a hangdog lawyer, Eleys Gabel is an unexpected central part of the cast as an oil-truck driver whose hijacking turns into a loose thread that could undo Abel’s efforts. Oyelowo plays a canny district attorney with a sense of PR and tactics both, and Catalina Sandino Moreno (Maria Full of Grace) amazing in one solitary scene as a woman worried about her oil-truck driving husband, is also a stark reminder to Abel of how far he’s come, and how far he could fall.”

More from Nicolas Bell (Ioncinema, 3.5/5) and Kristopher Tapley (HitFix).

Update, 11/29: Nathan Bartlebaugh at the Film Stage: “It’s almost a genuine shock to find that A Most Violent Year doesn’t fully deliver; the immersive atmosphere, aesthetics and set-up are so potent that they seem destined to produce something genuinely special. The material is there to be mined, and there’s a declarative richness to much of the acting, even if the script that ignites it feels liberally borrowed from other sources.”

Update, 12/9: A Most Violent Year “is high on my list of the year’s movies that I want to see again in 2015,” writes Jonathan Romney for Film Comment. “It’s an impressive, substantial piece of work, and a proper old-fashioned nail-biter too.”

Update, 12/14: For Indiewire, Michael Arbeiter talks with Chastain, who tells him: “When [Chandor] first sent me the script, the thing I said to him was, ‘You know what? I just have this idea for her, for what you wrote. Of course, I’m sure you’ve never thought about this. ( To me, she feels like Dick Cheney. I’d love to explore that more with her.’”

Updates, 12/27: “Like the work of Bennett Miller, J.C. Chandor’s sexless, willfully understated dramas are threatened by a tendency toward oppressive symbolism,” proposes Christopher Gray in Slant. “As Miller saddles his characters with funereal cadences and blunt physical tics (Brad Pitt’s maniacal chewing in Moneyball, Channing Tatum’s underbite in Foxcatcher), Chandor thrusts his characters into situations which highlight, italicize, and underline their own ethical and existential dilemmas. Robert Redford’s encounters with marine life and consumer detritus in All Is Lost remain a polarizing example, sure to be joined by the head-on collision of a deer and a Mercedes driven by Oscar Isaac’s Abel Morales in A Most Violent Year. But where Miller’s Foxcatcher transparently, numbingly favors broadsides about American values over the interiority of its characters, Chandor is doggedly persistent in prioritizing issues of individual agency throughout his parables about capitalism’s inherent moral corruption.”

Candor is “an urban-headed filmmaker attuned to economies of place and time, with an eye on the vacant throne of Sidney Lumet,” suggests Time Out New York‘s Joshua Rothkopf. Here, the “municipal stew is dense and unusually flavorful, of a kinship with James Gray’s The Yards and other films made for the last handful of adults who still go to theaters.”

“If it weren’t for The Immigrant, J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year would without question be the best James Gray movie released theatrically in 2014,” adds Michael Tully at the Talkhouse Film. “Like the story or don’t like the story, one thing’s for sure: A Most Violent Year is a marvel of period filmmaking.”

Interviews with Chandor: Michael Arbeiter (Indiewire) and Emma Myers (Film Comment).

Updates, 12/30: Chandor’s “effort at versatility alone would be impressive,” finds Mike D’Angelo at the AV Club. “More remarkable still, all three [of his films] have been legitimately good, even if A Most Violent Year demonstrates again that Chandor has a tendency to be a tad overexplicit, thematically speaking, when his characters open their mouths…. Can Chandor make a first-rate film that isn’t a testosterone fest? That’s the next challenge—one that he shares with the industry as a whole.”

Keith Phipps at the Dissolve: “It isn’t just set in 1981, it sometimes plays like a product of 1981—a late New Hollywood-era entry complete with an intense, confident Isaac performance that can sit comfortably next to the sort of work Al Pacino used to do. There may be no better recent study in range than Isaac’s work here and his fretful performance in Inside Llewyn Davis.”

“Subway cars blossom with graffiti; the radio news wearily tallies each day’s shootings and stabbings; crime and corruption hang in the winter air like smog.” For the New York TimesA.O. Scott, Chandor and Bradford Young “succeed in giving this beat-up version of the city both historical credibility and expressive power. The light is harsh, the shadows are dense, and forces of chaos seem to gather just outside the frame, their presence signaled by Alex Ebert’s anxious musical score. In the course of A Most Violent Year, there is an occasional gunshot, and some blood is shed, but the violence alluded to in the film’s title is largely a matter of mood rather than action—of whispers, not noise.”

“Imagine that Michael Corleone married into the family business instead of inheriting it as birthright,” suggests Adam Nayman at Reverse Shot. “And make no mistake, in this film, Oscar Isaac has been costumed, coiffed, and lit to look more than a little bit like Al Pacino circa The Godfather Part II. Jogging through empty city streets in a full sweat suit in the film’s first scene, he’s also a dead ringer for a prime-cut, pre-stardom Sylvester Stallone. ‘1975 was a good year,’ he says at one point, which comes across as a reference to the American cinema of the seventies as much as to anything that’s going on in the story. He’s reflecting on the recent past, but behind the camera, in 2014, his director might be daydreaming about Dog Day Afternoon.”

“Even more than James Gray’s The Immigrant—whose 1920s setting, immigrant-experience narrative, and sumptuously nostalgic cinematography recall The Godfather Part II—J.C. Chandor’s latest film is, in terms of form and content, deeply indebted to the tale of the Corleone clan,” agrees Nick Schager at the Daily Beast. “A Most Violent Year can lay claim to many 1970s-era ancestors, including the works of Sidney Lumet. Yet fundamentally, it’s a film that’s not only inspired by Coppola’s masterpiece, but one whose canny revisions to its template (and concerns) make it something akin to an alternate-reality version of the first two Godfathers.”

“Chandor and Javier Bardem parted ways over the script, because, as the director claims in an interview, the Spanish actor insisted on a more clearly differentiated moral conflict,” notes Howard Feinstein at Filmmaker. “Enter Isaac…. The most disturbing detour from Morales’s self-professed ethos of ethical propriety is his mishandling of the driver Julian (Elyes Gabel), a more recent arrival from Latin America…. Morales may be the film’s principal, but Chandor’s empathy is with the bedraggled Julian, trapped in an inescapable loser’s web not of his own making.”

Updates, 1/10: In Film Comment, Eric Hynes suggests that “like David O. Russell, and seemingly every American dramatist of late, Chandor can’t trust the audience to discern intent but rather underscores and italicizes an imprecise, and by now quite cozy message about the dark heart of the American Dream.”

In the L, Nicolas Rapold agrees that “not unlike Foxcatcher (and even American Hustle, to which Chandor seems to be attempting a corrective), the upward-mobility drama gets bogged down in the on-message momentousness of its dialogue and performances (cf. Margin Call), and lacks actual immediacy.”

But at Movie Mezzanine, John Oursler notes that Abel is “fixated on finding out who has been trying to bring him down when the answer is any and everything, and no one in particular. This is the primary way that A Most Violent Year distinguishes itself so singularly from other recent films about the American dream…. Chandor is bolstered by two non-flashy but essential supporting turns from Albert Brooks as Abel’s lawyer and counsel, and MVP of the decade David Oyelowo as the city official looking into the legality of his business. Isaac and Chastain have never been better, and here they’re both given the chance to play against type, showing that they’re among the most versatile and exciting actors of their generation (fitting since they’re former Juilliard classmates).”

Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir: “I was rooting for A Most Violent Year from first shot to last, and it’s a serious and ambitious drama that has numerous virtues. Maybe too many; you sometimes get the feeling that Chandor is so committed to seriousness, subtlety and moral ambiguity that he forgets about suspense and storytelling and letting the audience have some fun.”

“I’m an admirer of Chandor’s, but A Most Violent Year strikes me as his weakest work so far,” writes Slate‘s Dana Stevens. “For all its artfully established mood and wealth of period detail, the story is too self-consciously mythic, its ideas and themes too clearly signposted, for it to ever spring to vivid dramatic life.”

“The world needs fewer tasteful movies about distasteful things,” argues Stephanie Zacharek in the Voice. “It definitely doesn’t need J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year.”

More from David Denby (New Yorker), Tomas Hachard (NPR), Christopher Orr (Atlantic), Matt Zoller Seitz (, 3/4) and Alison Willmore (Buzzfeed). Jim Hemphill interviews Chandor for Filmmaker and Mike Snydel talks with Bradford Young for the Dissolve.

Updates, 1/15: “Costume designer Kasia Walicka-Maimone adds to the atmosphere with Chastain’s iconic retro sunglasses and Isaac’s bespoke suits and peacoats,” notes Matt Delman at Hammer to Nail. “The period detail is something distributor A24 has latched onto in their marketing campaign, having created an immersive website ( that features a wealth of photographs from early ’80s Manhattan, as well as articles about the era’s fashion, art and culture.”

Xan Brooks interviews Chandor for the Guardian.

Update, 1/18: “Dense and darkly brooding, simmering, even, A Most Violent Year is rich with its own full measure of dramatic reward,” writes Ray Pride at Newcity Film.

For news and tips throughout the day every day, follow @KeyframeDaily. Get Keyframe Daily in your inbox by signing in at

Did you like this article?
Give it a vote for a Golden Bowtie


Keyframe is always looking for contributors.

"Writer? Video Essayist? Movie Fan Extraordinaire?

Fandor is streaming on Amazon Prime

Love to discover new films? Browse our exceptional library of hand-picked cinema on the Fandor Amazon Prime Channel.