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Amidst the glut of contemporary Hollywood films employing excess and stylishness to produce spectacle—and, all importantly, box office dollars—lies J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year, a thoughtful return to simple storytelling and minimalist aesthetic. It’s slick and stylised, with a muted colour palette and precise clean cinematography, and comes off as a carefully considered piece that could be construed as a revisionist noir. The film places protagonists Abel and Anna Morales (Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain) within 1981, the eponymous most violent year in New York City’s history, and also within a city whose underbelly is much more liminal and sparse than our usual on-screen NYC.
This strangely other-worldly city setting is, in some ways, the key to the film’s tone. There is little sense of historicity or the outside world, aside from a few lines of dialogue—the film is very much absorbed in its own characters and the complex power love and money plays circulating within their universe. It’s an absorption that pays off, as viewers learn to co-exist within this sphere; it’s also a nice change from films like American Hustle or Inherent Vice that flaunt their historicity or overtly plasticise their worlds.
There is a languorous flow to this film, as if the director wants to pace it particularly eloquently. He overplays his hand slightly in parts, and there are some lapses in the narrative, requiring the viewer to actively agree with the film on its slow pace. A Most Violent Year never really lays itself or its characters bare, but this renders the small moments of revelation along the way as welcome as the forgotten coins at the bottom of one’s handbag. Chandor sees the film as one about “escalation”—he captures this superbly, and somehow manages to effectively balance it with the film’s trademark restraint.
Oscar Isaac plays on this slow revelation of character well to produce a compelling Abel. Chandor was perhaps more concerned with Anna, expressing a hope that “she’s not a caricature”: he need not have worried, with Jessica Chastain (who is perfection at the worst of times) giving perhaps her strongest performance yet. This is a film less about creating a narrative than about letting the characters, setting and tone shine through. Still undated for New Zealand release (which, viewer beware, could mean anything from not-coming-at-all to see-you-in-six-weeks), it was a welcome addition to this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival programme.